Wine Boy by Bhargavi C. Mandava

 

 

All But Six

by Adam Cushman

 

    

 

If you’re reading this, you’re going to die.

Underneath, in bolder calligraphy, reads: In Loving Memory. Then the name of the dead and all that.

The lump in his throat moves, but the poor little mutant takes enough beatings at school for a smidge of mascara here and there, for Key Club, for comic books and Dylan and Eric’s lonely legacy. Besides, he asked me yesterday at the wake, could he please design the grieving cards.

“There’s only ten or twelve say that,” he tells me, biting a chunk from his polished thumbnail.

“It’s insensitive, Dame. You’re lucky his parents are too emotional to leave the cemetery. His sister’s on the porch you know.”

“Betony? Or the other one?”

“The other one.”

His chubby rat face sinks.

Shoving the cards in his suit pocket, my voice cracks, “Get rid of them. Don’t embarrass people at a time like this.”

 “Nietzsche says the consummation of freedom is not being ashamed of yourself,” he mumbles, eyes on the floor.

“Only someone with no balls would say that.”

We’re standing at a small antique table by Stweeb’s front door. Claudia walks by smiling a second time. Feeling all big-brotherly now, my hand reaches up to straighten Damon’s tie, which comes off first pull.

“A clip on?”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he says, “who had to borrow?”

Smart-ass licks his lips, his second mistake of the morning.

“You’re all jacked up. What did you take?”

“Me? Nothing. Just a couple Dexedrines.”

“Aren’t those diet pills?” A smart move, no doubt.

Out of his slacks pocket comes a black pill bottle, sticky from the original label. “Here,” he nudges me, “Take one. Take more than one. You haven’t slept in three days.”

Sheer mercy makes me pop the lid and flick one of the triangular orange pills into his mouth, then palm the rest. “What else you got?”

“With me? Gram-and-a-half. Bag of lawyer-bud. Plus some of that powder from Belgium.”

“That the stuff makes you see God?”

“There is no God, Tom.”

After looking over both shoulders, the shakedown’s over in a few seconds. My ice cream and puppy-dog side lets him hold on to the chemicals that are appropriate for age sixteen.

“You can’t have everything you want, you know. It’s about giving too.”

Fat little bastard’s got a big bad point. When my palms turn over, he grumbles and hands me the blow for a whenever occasion and watches me pop three orange pills when no one else is looking.

 

*

 

Stweeb’s been stationed at the collage of memories since we got back from the funeral, his mom’s personal picture book of Blake and us, dating back to when we were fifteen: athletic jerseys, forties, prison-poses and all. Stweeb’s real name is Steve. Idiot still lives here at home with his parents even though his dad made him vice-president of the bank when he turned twenty-one. When he sees me cross the hall from the living room he chokes himself up as Bing signals me over from the porch/wet bar and gets a quick flash of Damon’s Belgian funny powder, which makes him claw at the sliding glass door with a look of crisis, like his car’s on fire. These tired shoes can’t take two steps before Claudia pulls me into one of the guest bathrooms, locks the door and buries her face in my chest, shushing my protests.

 “Just let’s hold each other,” she whines.

“I don’t need holding,” is my response. This is true.

“When you were carrying the coffin all I could think of was how do you taste right now. Is that horrible?”

Claudia’s Spanish, which is kind of hot, but the chipmunk-teeth ruin everything. My cue to chill is to tap her back a few times. She takes the hint as another hint though, uses the momentum to slide down, unzip me and punch in, where she hums and everything, with vigor, like she’s found the secret antidote.

“Please,” she says, “Please, Tom… Have my heart.”

This is painful. It’s been painful since tenth grade, up in the rocket at Sunny Land Park.

She says, “Don’t go through this…”

Ow.

“Alone,” and spits out a hair, closes the toilet seat and slides everything down to my ankles, seats me. Fine. There’s still a good twenty until this place starts jumping.

“That’s better,” she coos.

It’s not better.

Claudia knows what my moans and groans mean by now. One groan means slow it down, girl, try and chug a little deeper without making it look like an effort. Two cautionary groans is a cry in the dark for more tongue and in the name of the Lord, holster those teeth under the cusps of your lips. Three moans and a groan means squeeze less or squeeze more, or stop digging your nails into my thighs. Unfortunately, we’ve never made it to the fourth and final moan, which explains itself. Watching her pull down those black straps just above the nipple line while staring up at me with insouciant black eyes is when it occurs to me that not only are the orange pills taking effect, but Bing said earlier that Stweeb’s mom bought like three thousand dollars worth of Heinekens.

“We should stop. I’m… not ready. Everything’s still numb inside.”

Train wreck sighs, puts her straps back on, rubs the smeared lipstick with the last square of toilet paper, cocks her head all smirky and says, “You know, you’re the reason I’ve only slept with black guys.”

Fellow Caucasians, call me The Christ.

Pulling up my Christmas boxers, busting out Damon’s gram and giving her two bumps from my finger, three for myself, my yummy rainbow kitty-cat side strokes her cheek with the back of my hand and assures her hairy-armed self that she ought to just go home to her husband if what she said was true. 

She hugs my knee like a tourniquet, stifles her cry.

“What’s your problem?”

“We’re expecting, Tom.”

“Jesus! Again?”

 

*

 

Six lined coolers pack the porch. Old friends, teachers, parents and lots of elderly people have begun filling the yard and pool area for the post-funeral bash. While bending down to grab a cold one, a slap on the ass almost knocks me over, which means it’s Dirk, come round to remind me we’re suffering and stuff.

“Lotta people, huh?” Dirk says. He takes my beer, holds two in one hand, pops my cap with a lighter and hands it back. My mind sees the big cheese-ball raising his bottle before he thinks it.

“Please, man. It’s early.”

“Bitch, he loved you more than anyone. That motherfucker would have mealed your prune he thought you’d sleep better at night.”

“All right, what does that even mean?”

“Means you’re my boy, Tom Comfort. It’s you and me now.”

This is always what he says, just like next he smashes me in his great wall of a chest. His hugs hurt like his handshakes hurt. If Dirk’s not hurting you, you should probably run away as fast as possible.

Straightening his uniform, my oldest new best friend hocks one up from the pit of his guts, launches it with Olympic form into one of the far-off coolers.

“When do you head back to base, man?”

“O-900.  Hey, d’you hear about me decking my CO when they called me in to tell me?” Dirk punches my arm, which means he’s done us all proud.

“Yeah. At the airport. Twice at the wake.”

Dirk’s managed to finish an entire beer in the course of our exchange and grabs another as my eyes land dead on Becky Sweeney, whispering something to Bing, wearing a red flowered skirt and white halter-top. Dirk slaps me awake and holds his beer high.

“To my man Blake. May we all go out doing that which we love.”

We clink bottles, then he wipes his eyes, starts frothing about how Blake’s dad gave Dirk what was left of his son’s Trans Am, how when his two years at Okinawa expire he’s going to paint it gold as is and put the car in his living room. All that runs through my brain as Sweeney and me play a quick game of peek-a-boo. Trying to keep my jaw from jumping off my face from the blow and the oranges, my heart and soul prays to who or whatever hears these things not to let me die doing that which I love most of all.

 

*

 

After Dirk stumbles over to Stweeb’s canal for a piss, me and Bing make our escape to the driveway, where Bing spins one in his Cherokee, A/C cranked, watching the last of the guests pull through the front gate and cram their cars and limos on the lawn.

“Saw Jacqueline go into the pool house with Billy Griffith,” he tells me, “Bitch doesn’t waste any time.”

A couple licks, then he stuffs both ends with a matchstick, lets me spark it. A cloud settles in my throat, slows the world down to ground level, a little south of normal.

“Sweeney asked me about you. Asked about Erin, your all’s miscarriage, and how come everyone at the funeral cried but you.”

“Could be she wants to play nurse.”

“Could be she cares,” Bing says, then, “Pass that shit already.”

Bing’s lips move into the joint with four quick puffs, sun-glint bouncing from his multiple studded piercings. He says, “Tree used to call Sweeney ‘Shop-Vac.’ Says he never lasted more than thirty seconds, almost passed out the first time.”

“Where is that guy anyway?”

“Tried to get on a plane from Brussels with six-thousand tabs of ecstasy taped head to toe.”

“Nice,” real nice, “When does he get out?”

“He doesn’t,” Bing says and sets the joint down, waiting for me to hand over Damon’s funny powder, which he holds high, squinting at the base of the baggie. “This the stuff I’ve been hearing about, yeah, they say it makes you see God or some shit.”

Speaking of seeing God, “Thirty seconds. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if it was true?”

“It would be a miracle actually. Listen, where’d you find this poison? Looks like what’s in the urn at my dad’s apartment.”

 “My brother paid his respects.”

“Naw! Damon’s selling Belgian Blue?”

“You hear me say selling?”

“Pull your head out your crack, Cope, Dame’s my brother’s hook up.”

Cope’s my old tag-name from high school. Blake’s was Stur, Dirk went by Strike and Bing’s, ironically enough, was Faze. Stweeb’s tag-name was Stweeb, but he’s never touched a spray paint can.

What this means is my house has been packed with more party favors than an evidence room for some time. No wonder the little ball of fuck gave up his stash so easily.

“Little mutant needs to get a job.”

Bing gives me a sympathetic laugh. “Uhh, hey, Tom? When does your mom’s life insurance cow expire? Fool, of course Damon’s wheeling. Who can blame him? Law says it’s his money too, you give him what, fifty a month?” 

“He gets half in two years. What the law says.”

“And by then biggums’ll be rollin’, free of your bullshit. What I’d do.”

Bing sprinkles some of the gray powder along his finger and sniffs, wiggles his lips and nose, then asks, “How do you take this stuff anyway?”

“Maybe we should eat some.”

“Cool. Corey at the morgue says the peak lasts six to eight hours.”

We wet our fingers, dip, swallow, rub gums, let what sticks dissolve on our tongues. After that we look around the yard and back at each other. Shrug. Nothing.

“All right,” he says, “Maybe I’m thinking of the Turkish paste.” Which works for me. Three sniffs per head to level things off. While we’re finishing the roach, he starts moving his hand in front of his face in worm dips. A white rusted Chevy Nova pulls up and parks outside the gate.

“Carl’s here.”

Bing’s dazzling himself with both hands now, “Why?” he laughs.

“Blake owed him a beaner. He’ll ask us to pay it off.”

“Man, B was into him for that over three years. Carl’s smoking rock.”

Which is true, actually. Saw him a couple months ago while driving down a back road, come to a light, Carl’s pock-marked face comes sticking out of the bushes with eyes the color of prunes. Ran the light but he saw me for sure. Roguish bitch calls me six the next morning trying to sell me twenty pounds of sirloin, which he swears over and over has been refrigerated. After pleading wrong number, my nose started bleeding. Carl channels that shit.

“Where you going, man? We’re hanging out!”

“Someone’s got to warn Stweeb.”

 

*

 

During a quick stop and scan for Sweeney in the living room, some old guy with a lit cigar and a face full of moles touches my arm. A gold medallion winks at me through a forest of charcoal chest hair.

“First one’s a bitch,’ he grumbles, staring off in the distance, all the way to the fireplace. His voice is ground burger.

“What!” The word screams out of me, the Belgian Blue winning over, taking away all sense of weight and sound.”

“Think this is bad? Take a look at something.”

This distant uncle, neighbor, whatever, pulls out a short plastic hose, gives off a sly series of nods, then puts the monster away.

“Impressive. You have any sensation down there?”

“Neh. Testicular cancer finished the job. Almost jump started the nub back in ‘82, brought on gas like a sieve.”

The crazed eunuch grips my hand, stops me from throwing trails at the floor, watching them ripple into the waxed tile.

“Just make sure you look out for number one,” and he points to his zipper again, “’cause there’s fuckin’ land mines every way you turn.”

Uncle Friendly slaps my ass and stumbles over to one of the buffet tables. Carl’s over there too, standing on tippy-toes, a giant slab of turkey hanging over his palm. 

*

“It was always the five of us,” Stweeb moans from the floor of his bedroom, leaning against the bottom bunk, “Now what are we?” The walls are covered with racing posters, part of his Blake worship, a problem from way back. Blake’s dream was to race professionally. He trained at Sears Point and everything.

“Uh, pushing thirty.”

            “He was my best friend. He even told me that one time.”

“That must have been why you weren’t asked to be a pallbearer. Fuck ‘em all but six, right? Oh, and don’t forget about Stweeb.” Cruel, but Blake’s parents’ decision. Three of his second cousins carried the other side.

Stweeb does what Stweeb does when he’s upset, or doesn’t get his way, or does but not to his satisfaction. The sausage lips start making poo-poo sounds, then his face squinches and reddens, spitting zerberts in all directions, like Joe Cocker on mute. This requires me to suck in my cheeks to keep my shit together, then the funny powder drops a few octaves, says “This situation is worse than you think. Laugh and be damned. This is a twenty-nine-year-old man.”

“Pull your punk ass together, fool! Think he’d be blowing snot all over the place for you? Bullshit. You wanna make this work for you? You say to yourself, “That was my boy. Gonna send him off right, chasing the vertical smile until you’re nothing but a memory, fisting on heaven’s door, pushing in more stools than a cocktail waitress. Bitch, here, take this,” and out of one dose of love and three shots of stupid, my hand tosses the bag of God on his lap. “You eat some, or sniff some, then act like you’ve just won the lottery every day this week. And don’t pretend you’re not trying to use this as a way to land some stinky. Please. If any of these bitch-bombs didn’t want to get torn up they would never have left their houses. You loved the guy? He was your bestest friend in the whole wide world? Then stand up and run with the hunt. And give me back my shit.”

Like a fleshy scythe, my arm snatches back the untouched bag, shakes a sizeable portion on top of his giant sub-woofer. Now his pork face stares back with mouth agape.

“And listen, Stweeber, if Carl asks you for a hundred dollars, just send him to me or Bing.”

He points at me, a venomous whisper, “Don’t call me that.”

“Everyone calls you Stweeb, Stweeb.”

“Blake didn’t.”

“Wakey wakey, big dog: Blake made it up.”

There’s a not so faraway sound of smashing glass, followed by a series of screams.

 

*

 

Shrieks and yowls propel me into the living room, where Dirk lifts Carl by the throat, turns him sideways and strips him naked with two tugs of his shirt and khakis. The scene looks like a homecoming dance gone horribly wrong, with the elders, mostly Blake’s distants, propped against the fireplace wall like dusty photos, and twenty or so of my people, possibly less, (since everyone seems to be multiplying into threes and fours) pouring in from the porch, while Dirk shakes Carl like a sack of laundry, shakes him until the room goes silent and several brown clusters plop onto the tile. A forty-five degree turn to the geriatric wing reveals Stweeb’s mom pointing at the new developments, galvanized. When Dirk heaves a fainted Carl over his head and hurls the poor creditor through the glass coffee table, destroying many a night of Blockbuster cards slicing into rocks of eight balls, the first thing these eyes crash upon are Bing and Uncle Land Mine, hugging one another in an attempt to breathe away the laughter. A rotisserie fumes in my guts as these dilated eyes dart through the crowd of fleeing guests, a kaleidoscope of limbs and neckties, beehive wigs and launched tripod canes. Then, five frosty naked toes crawl their way up my slacks, stopping mid-shin.

Sweeney shoots me an all-toothed smile and licks her gums like a coyote. She asks should we drive over to her house for a shower. Somewhere during our push through the crowd she takes my hand and points toward the door to the master bedroom, where Jacqueline has her legs wrapped around some guy’s waist, his oversized head burrowing into her neck.

Sweeney says doesn’t that guy look just like my little brother.

 

*

 

My legs collapse in the center of a small hill in the front yard, an island within the rounded driveway. Sweeney does a running jump, both knees already scraped from something, and pounces on my stomach, untucks my shirt and runs her hands up my chest. The thirty-second-wonder still lives with her parents, who she tells me spend most of their time down in the Keys.

“You used to be thin,” she tells me.

The freshly mown grass makes the back of my neck itch. She starts unbuckling.

What Tree said about old curly-locks is true and far more impressive than the scenario these fists have spanked it to for the past eight years. She ties her strawberry hair back and swallows me first thing, her lips rubbing my pelvis bone as she moves her neck in circles, tongue in a slow side to side, humming every few seconds. Now both cheeks cave into Shop-Vac-mode and she begins her ascent, which, bless her little Irish heart, takes a good ten seconds.

Then a funny thing happens. Sweeney pulls up and cuddles into my neck, circling a chewed-off fingernail over my heart.

“It takes a long time to grow for something so tiny.”

“Sorry. Just give it a little while.” Silence. Chunks of seconds. “By the way, the tongue ring was a great move.” She takes no hint.

 “By the way,” she mimics, “Aren’t you engaged?”

Now she cuddles again. Then she seems to be licking my arm. My next attempt to break the ice, “So, how about that shower?”

With a sudden burst and a giggle, she’s off, sprinting toward a towering oak in the neighbor’s yard and with sheer lizard mobility, scurries up the trunk until her whole self disappears among fluffy branches. My pocket vibrates. The caller ID says “Jacqueline Cell.” My finger hits “Ignore,” as my hands agree to pull up my pants. Up in the tree, there’s nothing but a cloud of black shadow among the brush. Then a pale freckled face smiling down from on high.

“Hey,” I manage, “Uhh… why don’t you shimmy down?”

A man wearing only Speedos stands in her driveway in the distance, hands in fists at sides, reminding me how Sweeney said earlier that her parents spend most of their time down south. Peering back up, she’s nowhere in sight.

“Could you give me a ride back?” is my cry to the heavens.

What’s the point? My guts tell me to walk off the funny powder, find someplace quiet to scrub the blue off my balls.

 

*

 

Jacqueline picks me up at the Quicky Mart in her Geo. Some homeless guy out front’s been looking at me with big dead eyes and since he never hit me up, giving him the rest of my Charleston Chew seems not unjustified. Kind of microwaves my heart actually. On the way to the car, Jacqueline’s little alien face and ping-ponged eyeballs boil with contained venom. Once inside, she slams the car in reverse and peels out onto Pleasant Avenue, right into a passenger-side glare. Blake’s Raybans rest in the compartment beneath my door. They must be his prescription shades, or maybe the comedown’s sawing away at my skull. After a few minutes, her crazy ass just can’t take it anymore.

She spews, “So? Is the legend true?”

Takes me a minute to realize she means Sweeney, then, “Things are never as good as you remember or imagine them to be,” which earns me a bruised and sleepless death warrant of a stare. She starts giving me some crap about Blake, dying, fucking and what an overall cold prick she thinks lives inside what’s left of my heart; the little boy behind the red curtain she calls him, and maybe she even vomits some insightful shit that ought to make me make an effort to consider trying to ask some serious questions about what’s in front of the curtain, but her words become a dance of air and light as my head nestles between the seat and the window.

 

*

 

The seatbelt wakes me, slicing into my temple. Jacqueline’s taken the keys and left me to burn. My hand fumbles for the ashtray, finds a used condom balled up, possibly a keepsake, or maybe something more recent, among two of Blake’s mashed-in filters unworthy of even an attempt. We’re parked in the road on the east side of the cemetery, same place we were this morning. My face, it’s a puddle of candle wax, breath singing my nose hairs. Somewhere, a drunken groundskeeper is probably watching me fall out of the car, find a tree and piss one out for the gods as a faded marker shakes its head.

Jacqueline’s Indian-style beside Blake’s grave, an anorexic angel surrounded by full vases, liquor bottles and folded notes. The mound of dirt still bears the imprint of the back of the shovel. Then of course, the token fifteen or so scattered joints on top like hairline scratches. Part of me expects to see her tear-soaked face, but she’s got about as much of an expression as the residents below. My fingers latch on to a pinner a foot away. When the paper reaches my lips, a gust of wind sweeps forward, followed by a sharp sting, familiar, and it’s the noise of the slap that juices up my eyes. She goes back to her pose, Senator-proud.

“We’re like a soap opera. All of us,” she laughs.

“As the stomach churns.”

With a long nostril sigh, she says, “He’d want us to end up together.”

Part of me wants to tell her that’s some bullshit, how it drove Blake crazy ending up with my leftovers, but not crazy enough for him to drop her after his third shot-down marriage proposal. The other part thinks maybe she’s right. When she hears me unzip and watches me shove my hand down there, she snorts like she’ll do what girls do when you do that, but looks away instead.

 “Stweeb’s in the hospital,” she says, “He took something they said was mixed with formaldehyde. Bing went in the ambulance with his mom and everything. Plus the cops took Dirk away for what he did to Carl.”

Sensing me ready to burst, she inches toward me, then sinks her head.

“It’s fine,” all of me pleads, “You can do this.”

“You know, Tom,” and she thinks real hard through her self-righteous smile what to say next, then says, “The difference between us, and I used to think there wasn’t any, is we both do the same fucked up things, only I still get pleasure out of doing them.”

And with a pensive twirl of her blond bowl-cut, she gets up, brushes the grass from the back of her skirt, walks off and looks both ways three times like a new mom with a stroller, then jumps into her Geo and disappears onto the highway. Takes me twenty strokes to paint a puddle of glaze on my hand and slacks. A few minutes later the paste curdles, forcing me to remove Bing’s tie and clean off, then light one up, looking around at the tributes of old friends, enough to last at least until dawn. The sun comes out from behind a tree. After placing Blake’s slapped-off shades back on, smoking the pinner down in a few pulls, the world backs up a bit, letting air come up for me.

 

*

 

The groundskeeper kicks me awake before midnight, takes pity and calls me a cab. Back at the base, the lawn’s been reduced to two cars and a door wide open. Half a beer waits on the steps, ashed-in, but drinkable. Over by the garage, in the laundry room, Stweeb’s mom watches me like a sniper, perched on the dryer sipping something yellow. She stamps out her Caprice and waves me over. In spite of all the implant surgery that’s turned her into a science experiment, an ass of an ape and hemorrhoid-eyes, she could be doing a lot worse.

“The little retard had to get his stomach pumped,” she says, “Did you know he’s been sleeping in our bed since the accident?”

Part of me wants to say that’s what you get for breast feeding your son until he’s seven, buying the dip shit a Porsche at sixteen and a new one every time he wrecks pulling into the garage.

“Steve’s got a big heart.”

She downs her drink and throws her head back in resigned martyrdom, laughs it up, all about how, “He’s a complete ass-putz, Thomas, just like his father. You think I don’t know how you boys tease him?” She starts counting ringed digits, “He always gave you guys things. He pays for your drugs. I should know. I always give him the money.”

“Blake loved him,” a lie, “We all do,” a big fat one. Her folding a dirty dishtowel means she knows this.

“I’ve lost a son. That’s how this feels. Yet all I can think about is getting laid.”

My tongue licks the sweat from my chin. Bad move. She takes my hand, snorting laughter. The bitch of it is, this woman would be like a second mother to me, even if the real one hadn’t croaked around the time me Bing and Blake rescued Stweeb from being sodomized by half the basketball team in the science lab in ninth grade, thus spending the greater part of our lives under this roof, eating this woman’s kosher dinners, accepting generous birthday gifts, pissing in her pool, staining her ten-thousand-dollar sofa, at no time even pretending that this man/boy, this heartbreaking cross between Dopey and Opie, was someone we considered one of the boys.

“Is it true he was decapitated,” she asks, licking my cheek.

“Only partially.” Her lips start making kissy-faces and something comes up in my throat, gives me a generous freeze. She confiscates my beer and hops down on both heels, opens her droopy arms.

“It should have been Steven,” she spits like a horn and before that one even gets over the fence, she’s grinding, licking my neck and lips and biting my shoulder with the teeth of a shark.

“I never get to do anything anymore,” she says, with breath like burnt rubber.

The natural instinct when they’re stinky upstairs is to make my way downtown, but this only deepens the wound, as the area seems replete with webs and fog. Her noises, they’re primal, guttural pleads. After spitting out another salt chunk, there’s only one more mouth to probe. Far beyond the bunched hair and crumbs burns my tongue’s tip as varicose thighs squeeze for support. Here it’s dirty-clean, a soapy settlement, all but un-charted. Maybe this is where we go anyway. Climb back in through the out door until we shrivel up and disappear.

 

 

**

 

Adam Cushman's stories have been published or are forthcoming in the Mississippi Review, The Portland Review, Pindeldyboz, Carve and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and is currently at work on his second novel. He lives in Russia and Los Angeles.

 

 

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