12 May 2006

Hey, guys:

Because I'm lame, here's a story that's not what I've been working on from the novel. I'm back in savage torpor with that. Temporarily, of course. This one, I think, is close to being ready for publication.


“It’s My Birthday, Do I Get a Discount?”

I look up from the register. It’s a girl. Big. Not fat, but she will be in five, ten years. Her voice is deep and she’s wearing clothes with no visible tags, homemade, the fabric cheap—Wal-Mart, by the look of it. A pink floral-print skirt and matching top. She wears too much make-up and her blonde hair straight as a plank. She’s smiling.

“I wish it worked that way,” I say, taking her purchases and offering my own smile in return—a smile, I’ve been told, charms mothers. “Last week was my birthday.”

“Oh,” she says, sounding out of breath. Her face is still firm so I figure she’s not very old, maybe twenty.

At register one to my left, Becka, who’s ringing up The White Stripes for a frat boy, sniggers. Becka’s tall and thin and wears Gap, Abercrombie, Hot Topic. She listens to Tori Amos. She claims she’s a vegan, but I know better. I’ve seen her refrigerator, her trash.

The big girl doesn’t hear. She’s leaning on the counter, all arms and cleavage, awkward.

“Yeah,” I say, scanning the DVD—the first season of the animated series Punky Brewster—and still smiling. “If it worked that way, I’d have gotten a discount.”

“Employees do get discounts, numbnuts.” Becka reaches in front of me, beneath the counter for a bag as her customer’s credit slip stitches out.

The big girl’s eyes are large and round and blue.

“I mean, beyond what we already get. Employees, I mean. That’ll be $48.63,” I say.

The girl reaches out of sight and produces a small pink purse that matches her dress and pops it open. A handful of change and several crumpled bills spill onto the counter. The head of a tampon applicator pokes out of a nest of tissue like a hungry baby bird. She starts pushing coins around with her thick finger, the nail painted, what else, pink. From behind, Becka makes a sucking sound through her teeth and I know, without looking around, she’s leaning against the counter, arms folded across her tiny, pert breasts, peering over the rims of her black frames and doing her damndest to telepathically violate this girl with the blunt end of her superior lifestyle choices.

“Uh,” the girl says, staring at the mound of change and paper she’s arranged like the pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit. “You sure there’s not a discount?” She gives me that look again, big doe eyes, blue. Medicated smile.

“How much are you short?” I’ve already cracked the plastic rind from the DVD.

She says nothing, only stares down at the pile.

I can feel Becka’s smirk from here. “You know, it really doesn’t matter to me,” I say, scooping up the change and bills.

The girl’s eyes shift slowly from the cleared counter to my hands counting the coins. She’s got $46.73. A buck eighty-eight short. I drop the money in the register, bag the purchase, rip the receipt, hand it all over. “Happy birthday,” I say, again with the smile.

She grins down at the orange bag I’ve placed in her hands, like I’ve worked a minor miracle. “Thanks, same to you,” she says and turns for the exit.

Becka sidles up to me and through the storefront window we watch the girl make her slow, happy way across the lot to the bus stop under the tree. She takes a seat on the bench that bears the store’s logo—Dominion Records, a black vinyl record wearing a crown—and removes her purchase from the bag. She hunches over, reading the back cover, waiting for the number five.

“Jesus,” Becka says, curling her mocha-painted lip. “What was she wearing?”

“Don’t be cruel,” I say, and help the next in line.

“I can get someone on two,” she says with a flick of her wrist, and moves away, whispering in my ear as she goes, “You love it.”

I take the next customer’s purchase, a Ben Folds Five CD, crack it.

The truth is, for four months now, I’ve been sleeping with Becka on a semi-regular basis. When it comes to that, she’s phenomenal.

The first time was after the Christmas Party last year. I wasn’t drinking much so I drove her home and she invited me in and we ended up tangled on her Kyle Bunting rug. She has a condo overlooking the Mississippi. Her parents pay for it, along with books, tuition, credit card bills, etc. She’s majoring in graphic design at the University of Memphis. It’s a nice condo, or at least it would be if Becka wasn’t such a slob. At work, she’s put together like a precision instrument. At home, the mechanism falters.

She’d had five beers that night. It was December cold and she huddled close as I unlocked her deadbolt with her keys. She told me the security code once we were in the apartment because she couldn’t make sense of the keypad. We’d stopped off at Joe’s on the way for a bottle of Riesling’s, and while I uncorked it with her keychain, she disappeared into her bedroom to change. I took the place in: the kitchen had copper cookware hanging, pots and pans glazed with dust, dishes in the sink. In her chrome, foot-pedal trashcan, there were Chinese takeout boxes. In the living room leather furniture, a modest hi-def television, a few DVDs scattered on the carpet and glass-top coffee table. There were clothes draped everywhere: skimpy blouses, running shorts, a pair of tennis shoes discarded at the base of a floor lamp. A futon, its purple throw pillows on the floor. On the walls, she had expensive-looking, abstract oils, a couple of female nudes in charcoal, maybe her own. If so, she was good. The ceiling was vaulted. There were no photographs.

Bottle of wine and two glasses in hand, I crossed to the couch and sat down and sifted through the DVDs. Three cases on her table were Harvey, Elizabeth, and While You Were Sleeping. Harvey was in Elizabeth, Elizabeth was missing, and While You Were Sleeping was face-up under the case.

She came out of her bedroom, shoeless, wearing jeans and a white tube top, her bare shoulders small and freckled. She seemed steadier on her feet. She sat down at the opposite end of the couch and drew one leg beneath her and regarded me with solemn brown eyes. Her black hair was longer then, not short and bristly like now. It fell about her shoulders, framed her face.

“So,” she said. “Tell me a secret.”

She’d been hired the week before. We barely knew each other. I shifted nervously, took a drink from my glass. I brushed at the sleeves of my tweed coat and said, “I was raised on a farm in Texas. I was adopted.”

“That’s two secrets,” she said, and reached for her glass.

When she moved, I saw, incredibly, that her fly was open. I caught a flash of black lace. “They’re a package deal,” I said, trying not to stare. I gestured at the ceiling. “This is a nice place.”

She looked around, shrugged, drank some wine.

“Are these yours?” I asked, indicating the oils and charcoals.

“That one is,” she said, and pointed. “The charcoal is me. I posed for an artist when I was an undergrad.”

I got up, made a show of peering at the drawing. There was no face, only breasts and a stomach, a tiny, chiaroscuro waist.

“I’m a recovering coke addict,” she said, and tugged at her top, which slipped an inch or two when she moved.

“No kidding,” I said.

“That’s my secret.”

“Trumps mine.” I gave her the charming smile.

She set her wine glass on the coffee table among the scattered DVDs and got down on all fours on the floor. I stood with my glass in hand, watching as she began a series of stretches and contortions.

“This is the Seated Wide Angle,” she said, maintaining eye contact as she spread her legs to the side, bent forward from the hip. “And this,” she said, moving again, “is the Camel.” Now she was on her knees, reaching backward, grasping her ankles, chin and chest thrust toward that high, high ceiling.

I said the only thing that came to mind: “Your pants are unzipped.”

In one deft motion she rocked forward and was on her knees at my feet. Her hands flew to my zipper and tugged it down. She looked up, her face round and rich and pale.

“Now yours is, too,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

By the time I knew the answer, she had already done it.

My commute to and from work is about half an hour, give or take the occasional crazed motorist or drunk pedestrian. This afternoon, a hot Tuesday in mid-May, the day of the big girl’s birthday, things are moving slowly. I’ve got my Civic’s window down and I’m listening to a Stones bootleg and sweating through my shirt, thinking about the birthday girl, wherever she might be. In fact, most of the afternoon, when I wasn’t stealing glances at the gecko tattooed in the small of Becka’s back, I was thinking about that girl.

Where does someone like that come from? Someone so achingly honest, who brings almost enough money to spend on a Punky Brewster DVD, and why does she come alone on her birthday? Was the money a gift from some aunt? Where was her mother, her sister, her father to buy the present for her? Did she make that pink dress or did her grandmother? Did the old woman teach her how to sew? Why isn’t she going out, to a movie, the pizza café, a bar? The question of a boyfriend never even occurs.

I’m on Poplar, headed for Union. I stop at a light, glance out the window, notice a word spray painted white on an ivy-laced brick wall that surrounds a ritzy apartment community: “Locate.”

I give her a name: Anne.

I give her an address: Bright Point Trailer Park, 38 Knight Arnold. I’ve driven past there once or twice. There’s a plastic menagerie in the tall grass outside the gates: lions, tigers, elephants, gnomes to shepherd them.

I give her a mother and a younger sister: Momma, Little Rachel. Little Rachel sings Gospel at the First Pentecostal Church on Sundays.

I give her a fat, diabetic cat: Topaz. They can’t afford the shots….

The light is green.

The guy behind me, a trucker, blows his horn.

I shrug at the rearview, accelerate.

I’ve been at Dominion on Poplar in Memphis for a year now. It’s one of those jobs that starts out part-time while you earn your master’s in film theory and then, after graduation, becomes the nexus of your financial, social, and spiritual life. The fast-track to assistant manager. As my unemployed roommate Hunter says, between joints, “The three Fs: it gets you food, it gets you films, it gets you fucks.” Which is mostly true. I eat well, get discounted Criterion DVDs, and spy—if not take—the best lower-middle-class trim in the world. Other than chain record stores, the only other retailer that offers as wide a selection of unfulfilled female shoppers is Hobby Lobby. If you don’t believe me, go there on a Saturday.

Hunter and I live in an expensive apartment on the edge of a bad neighborhood off Union. Our second-floor window overlooks the parking lot, which—along with the basement laundry—floods with every hard rain. Though we live near the center of town, the Latino man who lives on the other side of the fence owns six chickens and a Bantam show-rooster that crows all night. The rooster’s name is King Cock. Every now and then, the Latino man yells from his kitchen window: ¡Rey Cock! ¡Consiga lejos de la cerca! ¡Consiga ausente o sueno su cuello! The rooster ignores the man and squeezes through a gap in the fence and struts about our gravel parking lot wearing a set of dog tags stamped with its name. Upon spying the rooster from the kitchen table, Hunter, if not too busy searching the classifieds for work, will leap to his feet, snatch up a Daisy BB rifle he keeps in the pantry, and position himself at the open window. The long barrel extends and…snap. King Cock leaps into the air, dog tags jingling, feathers flying.

For my birthday last week, Hunter invited some friends he’d made at his last job bartending at Red Lobster—a motley group of part-time musicians, poets, and one nervous fifteen-year-old kid who might have been someone’s little brother along for the ride. I invited Becka and a guy from the film program who was writing his thesis on David Lynch. “‘Un Auteur Tordu,’” he called it. He had long hair and three-day stubble. His name was Gregor.

The apartment, when not decorated for my birthday, is old and lovely: hardwood floors, peeling wallpaper. There’s character in the plaster. That night, however, the doorways were strung with donkey piñatas, the walls with red lights in the shape of chili peppers. There were a dozen of us crowded into three small rooms, a buffet of taco casseroles and Rotel dip spread on the kitchen table. Bottles of Corona on ice, tequila on the coffee table. Los Tigres Del Norte on the CD player. Hunter, despite his shortcomings as a roommate—namely his habitual drug use and chronic unemployment—has flair. He spent the night playing host in a sequined sombrero his grandmother had brought him from Old Mexico.

My birthday, if I haven’t mentioned it, is May 5.

Gregor and I were taking up space like people do at parties. I leaned against the living room wall and listened and nodded as he told me all about his exhaustive excursions into Twin Peaks. I tried not to notice one of Hunter’s Red Lobster co-workers—a Goth girl with the entire jewelry department of JC Penney in her face—licking the ear of the fifteen-year-old on the couch. He had on a T-shirt that read “Cause Anime Is the Suck” and a beer in his crotch.

Becka showed up half an hour late, already tipsy.

I let her pull me away from Gregor to the kitchen, where we got two beers.

“Is this cheese dip?” she said.

“Velveeta,” I said.

“Barbarians.” She took me by the hand and led me back through the living room and out onto the balcony, which overlooks a green courtyard, at the center of which is an empty fountain. On the balcony next door I could see the shapes of my neighbors sitting in patio chairs, smoking in the dark. I waved. They called out, “Happy Birthday, Nick,” to which I replied with a tip of my Corona.

“I like it better out here,” Becka said. “It reeks of chili powder in there.”

I smiled, took a drink. It was my second beer and I was beginning to get that tingly feeling in the bottom of my feet. “Hunter’s a pal,” I said. When I drink, I get munificent.

Becka snorted.

“What? It’s my birthday. I can afford to be forgiving. A few months’ rent is an acceptable price to pay for such a fine soiree.”

“You’re full of shit, you know that.” She reached up, brushed a lock of hair from my forehead. “You also haven’t returned my calls for about a week. You work the days I’m off, the shifts I don’t. I’m starting to think you’re giving me the brush-off and I don’t know why.”

“Preposterous,” I said, no handle on where the evening was going. I was drunk.

“Maybe.” Becka clicked her nails against her bottle. “Maybe not. But whatever. It is your birthday.”

She leaned in close, slipped an arm around my neck, kissed me.

When we drew apart, she said, “You’re unhappy with me. I don’t get it.”

“You’re unhappy, too,” I said.

“But I admit it. I told you at Christmas: I’ve got problems. Still, I don’t just fuck any guy who comes along you know.”

“You’re a liar,” I said. “You eat meat. I saw the boxes in your trash.”

The lights from inside the apartment were reflected in her narrow cat eyes. “You’re an ass,” she said, and turned away. She leaned against the balcony railing, sniffed, wiped at her face. I reached out to touch her but she stepped beyond my reach.

Inside, Hunter started up a chant: Nick! Nick! Nick! Nick! The others took it up, drowning out Los Tigres Del Norte. “Where’s that birthday boy?” my roommate cried. Through the door I could see he was standing in the middle of the living room holding a writhing black pillowcase over the coffee table.

I went in.

Becka remained on the balcony, though she turned to watch.

“For the birthday boy,” Hunter exclaimed, swinging the pillowcase in a wide arc above his head, like a bolo, “a party favor!” He turned the bag upside down.

King Cock tumbled out in a fury of red and yellow. Beer bottles toppled as the rooster landed on the coffee table, got his feet under him, and sprang at the nearest person. This happened to be Gregor. The bird’s spurs dug into Gregor’s belly and both went tumbling backward over the couch, smashing the nose of the fifteen-year-old kid, sending a gout of blood across the upholstery. Everyone jumped to their feet and we all stood staring as, behind the couch, the rooster assaulted the film student. Hunter’s face had gone slack with amazement. Gregor was screaming. And suddenly the bird went flying through the air and cracked against the wall, knocking loose a framed lobby card of Dark Passage, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The rooster plopped onto the floor and dodged into the bathroom. A set of dog tags lay tangled along the baseboard.

I ran like a shot and yanked the bathroom door shut.

Gregor rocked on the floor, holding his stomach, breathing rapidly.

“What the fuck was that?” I cried.

Hunter removed his sombrero and held it in front of him, a penitent peasant. “Forgeev me, seen-yore,” he said, but no one laughed.

“Peroxide,” Gregor said from behind the couch. “I need peroxide.”

“Oh come on,” Hunter said indignantly, glancing around.

Everyone stared.

“You like that rooster,” he said to me. “You always say it reminds you of home.”

King Cock warbled in the bathroom.

“Betadyne?” Gregor had gotten to his feet and was holding his tattered shirt against his belly to staunch the bleeding. “Something. Please.”

I looked at him. “It’s in there,” I said, and hooked a finger at the bathroom.

“Fuck,” he said.

Becka stood just inside the balcony door, arms folded across her chest. Her expression was something between sympathy and disgust.

On the stereo, Los Tigres Del Norte played on.

She stayed and helped me corral the rooster after everyone had left. Hunter drove Gregor to the Walgreen’s on the corner for antiseptic then took him home. We chased the rooster around the apartment for half an hour, finally cornering it behind the TV. When I seized it and picked it up, its heart was pounding and its eyes were flashing. I took it downstairs and released it through a gap in the fence. It raced across the hardpan and joined its six hens under a rusted swing set.

When I got back upstairs, Becka had disrobed and climbed into the shower. Without a word I joined her. We thrust about under the spray until the water ran cold.

A few days after the big girl’s birthday, she returns to the store, wearing the same floral-print skirt and matching top. The bus drops her off. She wanders up and down the animation aisle, staring at the titles and mumbling to herself as if working some weird incantation upon them. She bites her thumbnail. Becka’s in back, taking inventory. I watch the girl between customers. She picks up box after box, title after title, always reading them thoroughly, always placing them carefully back on the racks. After thirty minutes, she leaves, goes out to the bus stop, and sits down to wait.

Must not be anyone’s birthday.

“What’s that?” Becka says behind me. She taps me on the shoulder with her clipboard.

I turn. “Nothing,” I say, and smile.

It’s a smile, I’ve been told, charms mothers.


Blogger The Damned said...

Sorry it’s taken me so darn long to get these notes to you...no excuses, just summertime:
Do we need this? Seems a bit too much: “At work, she’s put together like a precision instrument. At home, the mechanism falters.”
Another moment that we’re told too much: Becka and Nick on the balcony at his birthday: “I was drunk.”

I think what might be necessary is a just a final edit of material that can be cut down, like: in the paragraph that begins “The apartment...” you can unify the last two sentences by getting rid of “has flair. He” adding a word or two, so it reads maybe, “Hunter, despite his shortcomings as a roommate—namely his habitual drug use and chronic unemployment—spent the night playing flamboyant host in a sequined sombrero his grandmother had brought him from Old Mexico.”
I say look for more moments like this before starting to submit it...(have you heard of Blood Orange Review? They’re looking for stuff and it’s a nifty looking place…I’m going to send them a short memoir piece)

In the last scene at the store, should Nick put the characters and setting he’s created for “Anne” back? In other words, should he project them onto her or talk to her, briefly? Should he be right? Would he see a scene—since he’s a film graduate—playing out in his head? Would the attention to details be there? Would her life somehow justify his? Becka’s?

Altogether, my initial comment is Nick is way attentive to details (i.e. “There’s character in the plaster.”—what does that mean?). He’s very caught up on naming things, getting them right, but when it comes to everyday communication, daily living, he can’t really function. I wonder about this…is it somehow tied to his film background? I like this story. I dig the characters, although Becka seems to have no redeeming qualities (maybe she should catch King Cock and put him back with the hens?)

Things I like:
King Cock and the Spanish neighbor
The way Nick imagines “Anne’s” life at the stoplight
Gregor’s assault (a la Flannery O’Connor, except O’Connor would end the story there, with Nick thinking about the fat girl, instead of taking us back to the store)

Well done

7:48 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

I like where the story's going, but I don't think it's there yet.

Here are some comments, which I wrote before I read Joy's so there may be some overlap:

Move the paragraph that begins “I can feel Becka’s smirk from here…” so it follows “She’s got 46.73. A buck eighty-eight short.” I wasn’t clear what he was talking about, but if we see the girl’s short the amount, then Becka smirks, then the narrator says it doesn’t matter, that seems smoother.

Regarding Becka’s performance in the sack: a fresh simile or metaphor might give us a clearer picture of the nature of their relationship.

After the flashback to the scene in Becka’s condo, when we return, the narrator’s already on his way home from work. Is that awkward or am I just looking for stuff to comment on? If it is awkward, you could set up in the beginning that his shift is nearly up—which could heighten the drama a little, if he’s anxious to get out of there—or summarize the rest of his work day quickly when we come out of the flashback.

Topaz—great detail; characterizes the narrator’s imagined idea of the girl’s—and her family’s—character.

The rooster’s great.

Musicians and poets hang out at the Red Lobster bar? These have to be peculiar/particular musicians and poets to hang out there, don’t they? I’m not sure I believe it. I would believe it more if he met them somewhere else and they started hanging out at Red Lobster after he got a job there so they could get free drinks or whatever—maybe that’s the reason he got fired.

Nick doesn’t need to tell us he’s drunk. The fact that he says “ ‘Preposterous,’”—like a red herring in an Agatha Christie novel—shows it, perfectly.

Hunter’s mexican apology is hilarious.

After the incident with King Cock, when El Tigres play on, should we hear what they’re music sounds like? I’m not sure what it sounds like, but I imagine a heavy, up-tempo beat and accordians—is that close?

I’m not satisfied with the ending, for some reason. Maybe it’s because I don’t yet have a sense of how their relationship or their characters have changed. It seems like Nick and Becka make up a little too quickly. This also makes me wonder if they’ve really hurt each other enough out on the balcony. I don’t get the significance of the girl’s return to the store either, though I think (having read Joy's comments, she's right:) having him imagine more of the girl's life, or having him talk to her, or maybe even follow her might be necessary. I'll have to think about her function in the story and get back to you about that, though. Or maybe I should just ask you what you intend with her character?


5:55 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

another thought: is "anne" the foil for Becka? is she the one who doesn't eat meat, who understands the plight of orphans (although it's from Punky Brewster, it's more interest in orphans than Becka has), who makes her own clothes and rejects mainstream society--all the things Becka says but doestn' do?

if these things are the case, should Nick see them more clearly? should the story he's concocted about Anne's life change?

11:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home