The Petting Zoo - Peter de Niverville


At first Johnson thought it was a joke. Speeding down the country road the crude sign was only a blur. But it was that one word. Slowing down, he swung the Lexus onto the paved shoulder. In the rearview mirror, he could see it clearly. The sign was tacked to a stick that was stuck in the ground just beyond the paved shoulder.
     Shifting the powerful car into reverse, Johnson jammed the accelerator down. The tires squealed and loose gravel flew as he tore back up the road. Screeching to a halt, Johnson stared at the faded handwriting:

ELSWORTH'S FAMOUS
SPIDER PETTING ZOO
5Ms Next RT

     Spiders fascinated Johnson. One summer, when he was eight, a large gold and black spider had taken up residence underneath the shingles by the back door. Every morning, Johnson would gather up ants in a jar from a nest in the scrubby woods behind his house. One by one, he would drop the wriggling insects into the web.
     With lightning speed, the spider would spring from her hiding place and race towards the victim. Sinking her fangs into the ant, she would retreat, waiting for the poison to take effect. When the ant slowly stopped struggling, she would climb back down and delicately wrap her prey in a white shroud.
     This continued until, one day, his mother caught him. "What a cruel little boy you are," she scolded between clenched teeth as she pummeled his backside. He could still feel the shame of being spanked.
     Years later, in a rare moment of remorse, Johnson wondered what it was like for the ant. Trapped…helpless…waiting for the spider to return. Did they know fear or horror? Or was that something only humans experienced? The insect brain was too small he told himself. Or so he hoped.
     Five miles, thought Johnson, This side trip might only add another half hour or so to his journey. He would still have time once he got to his motel to have a shower. The dinner meeting with the buyer from the supermarket chain wasn't until 6 o'clock and it was only 4 now.
     Coasting forward, Johnson scanned the road looking for the turnoff. About one hundred yards ahead, he saw a lane that intersected with the highway. Flicking on his turn signal, he shot a quick glance at his watch.
     If I don't find it in fifteen minutes, he promised himself, I'll turn back.
     Accelerating smoothly, he turned onto a well-paved secondary road with deep ditches on either side. Punching the buttons on the CD player, he stretched his arms, settling back into the soft leather seat. As the throbbing beat of Queen filled the Lexus, his mood lightened - an unexpected adventure in an otherwise boring day.
     Johnson hated his job. Endless meetings with bad food and balding buyers. Too many drinks and too many hangovers. He was packing on the pounds, too. I have to get back to the gym, he reminded himself.
     The only redeeming feature of his job was that he was good at it. Top sales rep for the last three years. I should have been an actor, he told himself. Instead I'm selling toilet paper and tampons to these turkeys.
     As the needle on the speedometer crept higher and higher, the neatly kept fields and freshly painted houses became a blur. Mile after mile slipped by. Johnson felt that he and the car had become one, soaring along like a hawk on a summer breeze.
     But his mood soon soured. The condition of the road deteriorated. Asphalt gave way to chip-seal, which gave way to gravel; and, finally ended up as dirt.
     Johnson jumped on the brakes when a huge pothole emerged in the center of the road. Cursing the delay, he checked his watch again. It was almost 5. The long drive down the country road had dulled his sense of time. I better turn around, he cautioned himself.
     As he studied the road ahead looking for a safe place to make a U-turn, he saw it. An old farm house set back from the road. If it hadn't been for the pothole, he would have missed it completely. By the mailbox, a freshly painted sign read:
ELSWORTH'S FAMOUS
SPIDER PETTING ZOO
OPEN YEAR ROUND
ALL VISITORS WELCOME

     This must be the place, he concluded. Carefully turning up the heavily rutted lane, Johnson wondered what he would find.Perhaps one of the locals playing a joke on the tourists, he mused.
     Tall grass slapped at the bottom of the car and rusted barbed wire clung to rotted posts that ran alongside the lane. In the untilled fields, scrubby bushes had sprung up like mushrooms. Johnson tried to imagine what the farm looked like in better days, but it was impossible.
     When he reached the top of the hill, the farmhouse looked even more decrepit. Blistered paint hung from the wooden shingles and there was a disturbing sag in the middle of the roof. What once had been the side garden was now occupied by tall thistles and a mass of tangled timbers indicated the former site of the main barn.
     Except for the glass still being intact in the windows, the house looked abandoned. Where is everybody? thought Johnson. In response to his question, an old woman dressed in a black skirt and a woolen sweater stepped out the side door. She was gnarled and withered like the lone apple tree that stood in the yard. Johnson guessed she must have been at least 70, maybe even 80 years old.
     "What you want?" she spat.
     Turning off the CD player and rolling down the car window, he replied, "Is this the petting zoo?"
     "That's what the sign says, don't it?"
     Ignoring her rudeness, Johnson continued, "Are you open?"
     "I'll git Jake. He out back choppin' wood."
     He watched as she shuffled down a dirt path and disappeared around a corner of the house. Charming, thought Johnson.
     Opening the car door, he stepped out. Despite the poverty, the farm had a certain rustic appeal which reminded him of the house that he grew up in in the country.
     But there was something odd. Something missing. Where are the flies? thought Johnson. On most farms the low buzz of the black swarms was constant. But here there was none. Except for the moaning of the wind, it was quiet.
     Perhaps it was the lack of animals, he thought. Or maybe it was the stiff breeze at the top of the hill that kept them at bay.
     Glancing at his watch, he frowned. It was after 5 o'clock. If he did not get back on the road soon, he would be late for his appointment. Either that or skip his shower. After driving all day, Johnson did not want to skip the soothing ritual.
     Taking one last look around, he reached for the handle of the car door. Just then the old woman reappeared and behind her an even more wizened up old man wearing faded blue overalls and a nicotine-stained undershirt.
     Stopping at the corner of the house, the old man spat out a long jet of chewing tobacco on the ground. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he paused momentarily to study Johnson.
     Speaking to the old woman, he said in a low tone, "Thought I heard a car come up."
     "Wants to see yer spiders," she said before she turned away and went back into the farmhouse, letting the screen door slam behind her.
     "You wanna see my spiders, young fella?"
     "Sure if you're open. How much?"
     Looking over the Lexus, he scratched his ruddy face and said, "Fifty bucks."
     "Fifty! That's ridiculous!"
     Shrugging his shoulders, the old man said, "Take it or leave it. I got work to do."
     Then he spat out another long jet of chewing tobacco and turned to go.
     I can't leave now after coming all this way, thought Johnson. Taking another quick glance at his watch, he said irritably, "All right, all right. But this better be good!"
     The old man smirked and licked his lips as Johnson whipped out a crisp fifty dollar bill from his wallet. Johnson did not like the old man's greedy look and hastily shoved his wallet back in his pants pocket.
     "Thanks," said the old man sarcastically, snatching the bill from Johnson's hand. Looking it over carefully, he folded it up neatly, stuck it in his pocket and said, "Follow me."
     The old man led Johnson down an overgrown path to a shed at the back of the farmhouse. Inside, the dim glow of fluorescent tubes highlighted the dozen plywood shelves that ran along the walls. In contrast to the rest of the farm, the shed was neat, almost antiseptic in appearance. Sitting on each shelve was a glass terrarium filled with twigs and rocks. In the case closest to Johnson, a small garden spider was spinning a web in the corner.
     "That's an orb spider," said the old man.
     "I know," said Johnson, annoyed by the interruption,
     "You know spiders?'
     "A bit," replied Johnson. "I used to study them when I was a kid."
     "I bet you're the type that liked to feed 'em, eh? Catch bugs, drop 'em in. See what happens. Fun, ain't it?"
     Suddenly Johnson was uncomfortable. How did he guess my secret? he wondered. Johnson felt the warm rush of blood to his neck and ears as he started to blush.
     "No need to be ashamed, young fella. All kids do it. It's natural."
     Trying to change the topic, Johnson asked, "You been at this long?…keeping spiders?"
     "Yeah, I been at it awhile. Most folks are scared of spiders. Not me. Me and spiders git along real good."
     Johnson turned back to watch a large black spider in another case sucking up the half-digested slurry of its latest victim.
     Trying to be polite, Johnson asked, "Bet you don't get many visitors here…being so far from the highway."
     "Don't need 'em," said the old man. "This is just a sideline." Pausing for effect he added, "I breed 'em."
     Johnson looked puzzled.
     "For the college," explained the old man. "They use 'em for research."
     "Does it pay well?"
     "Good 'nuf…Ah, they don't know squat 'bout spiders!," said the old man, spitting on the floor. Johnson looked down and saw that a streak of the sticky black tobacco had splashed on his shoes.
     "I been doing research of my own," said the old man proudly. "Spiders are jes' like any other critter. Cows, horses, dogs - they're all the same. Breed the best with the best and you git the best…Or the…," the old man's voice trailed off as he started to laugh.
     There was something about his tone that made Johnson uneasy.
     "You wanna see my prize winner?"
     Johnson looked around.
     "Oh, she ain't here. I keep her in the barn. She kinda makes these critters nervous. I can't say, I blames them. Wanna see her?"
     The way the old man said it, the question sounded more like a challenge.
     Johnson hesitated. He wanted to say no, but he could not let the old man see he was afraid.
     "Sure," answered Johnson. What could it be? he asked himself.A tarantula?
     With the old man in front, they went down a lesser-used path to a small barn behind a stand of trees that made it invisible from the farmhouse. A shiny new lock on a rusted hasp yielded to the old man's key.
     "I don't like kids messin' with my stuff."
     The ancient wooden door swung open. Inside it was pitch black. Johnson hesitated. What was it that made him apprehensive? His mouth felt dry and he tried to swallow.
     "Go on in!" taunted the old man as he shoved Johnson through the door.
     Stumbling on the raised sill, Johnson fell to one knee ripping his pants. Damnit, he cursed.
     "There's a light switch ahead of you," the old man reassured him. "Jes' pull the string."
     The stench of moldy hay made Johnson gag.
     "Where is it…the spider?" he called out.
     "She's in the back. You can't miss her."
     "Where's the light?"
     "Right in front of you. Can't you see it?" mocked the old man.
     Johnson stretched out his hand. At first, he could not feel anything. Then slowly groping the air in, he caught hold of it. Johnson's heart leapt in relief. But there was something strange. The line didn't feel like string. It was sticky like a…
     Pulling the line, Johnson knew he had made a mistake. Something rustled in the rafters above him and bits of straw floated down.
     Johnson bolted for the opening.
     "Enjoy yourself!" cackled the old man as he slammed the door and locked it.
     "Let me out! Let me out!" shouted Johnson, pounding on the door. "Let me out, you old buzzard!"
     But it was no use. The dried-out wooden door was like iron. Pausing to catch his breath, his fists throbbing, Johnson looked around. Slowly his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. What appeared to be a black chasm was, in fact, the side entrance to the barn. There must be another way out, he thought. But where?
     In the gloom, he could see that beyond the entry way there was a large open space. And beyond that a boarded-up window through which thin shafts of sunlight streamed.
     Great! All I have to do is cross the barn, pull off one or two of those boards and climb out, thought Johnson. Then I'll show that old man. Fifty bucks! He'll wish I had never stopped.
     Then he heard another rustle overhead and more straw floated down.
     "Who is it? Who's there?" he called out.
     I'll bet it's that old man, thought Johnson. He thinks he's going to scare me.
     "Sure! You just keep that up, old man," Johnson called out again. "Let's see how much laughing you do when I bash your face in."
     But first, I've got to get to that window. Be careful, he cautioned himself. This barn must be full of junk. Don't want to fall down and get hurt.
     Despite the heat in the barn, he shivered. Licking the sweat off his upper lip, Johnson slowly picked his way across the wide wooden-planked barn floor, being careful not to trip. Shadows of old machinery and tools loomed around him. A leather harness that hung from the wall looked like a hangman's noose.
     There was a peculiar smell, too. It reminded him of a package of chicken that he once left in the trunk of his car on a hot summer day. It was the sickly, sweet scent of rotting meat.
     Oh, gross! muttered Johnson. There's a dead animal in here.
     In less than a minute he had crossed the barn and was standing in front of the boarded-up window. Blocking his exit were three boards nailed haphazardly into the frame.
     Either the old man was too weak or too lazy to drive them all the way in, concluded Johnson. I can probably pull them off with my bare hands, he smiled triumphantly.
     The first board was half-rotted and fell apart in his hands. Light streamed in as it came away from the frame. Then he shifted his attention to the second one - the board in the middle. If he could get this one off, he could easily climb out.
     But this board wouldn't be so easy. It was like the old door of the barn, dried out and as tough as steel.
     Gripping the board with both hands, he began pulling. The nails squealed in protest and the board started to move. Only a little bit further, grunted Johnson. The thought of throttling the old man excited him. Just a bit further....another half inch. He could almost feel his fingers closing around the old man's scrawny neck...the eyes bulging...the tongue sticking out. Another half inch...!
     Then it stopped. Desperately, Johnson yanked at the board, but it was no use. It would not yield.
     I need more leverage, he said to himself. Balancing on one foot, he braced his other against the window frame and started pulling again. The muscles in his forearms and back bulged as he strained against the board. Sweat rolled down his forehead and into his eyes. Come on, he pleaded with the wood. Come on.
     In his frustration, Johnson did not hear the soft tap...tap...tap on the floor behind him. Tap...tap....tap. Like a blind man with his cane. Tap...tap...tap. Then it was too late. It struck.
     The force of the attack rammed him face first up against the wall knocking the wind out of him. Warm blood trickled from his nose and ran down his cheek.
     What was that?
     Turning around slowly, he could see, in the light from the window, his attacker. It was crouched inside an empty stall along the opposite wall. The legs tensed ready to spring. It was a spider. No doubt one of the old man's experiments. But this was no ordinary spider. It was huge. About the size of a pit bull, with legs that extended out three or four feet on either side. Its eyes stared coldly at him.
     Johnson did a quick tally of his injuries. Except for his bloody nose, he was unharmed. Perhaps the large size of the creature made it difficult for it to mount an attack, he conjectured. Possibly it did not even recognize him as prey.
     Spiders normally eat moths and insects, he reminded himself.Not human beings.
     When he was a kid, Johnson liked to throw twigs into a web just to see the spider's reaction. Invariably, after pouncing on the object, the spider would pluck it out of the web, turn it over and drop it on the ground. Johnson hoped this spider would show the same lack of interest.
     From its vantage point at the other end of the barn, the creature seemed puzzled - unsure of itself. Spiders are cautious, he told himself. It's waiting for me to make the next move.Although every fiber in his body screamed run, his brain told him stay still. The spider was too big and too fast to out-run.
     I need a weapon, he told himself. Quickly looking about, he saw the rotten board from the window lying at his feet. It was about two feet long with a jagged point at one end. It'll have to do. Slowly, he bent down to pick it up.
     The spider crouched low, like a sprinter, ready to strike again. Johnson froze - his fingers only inches from the board.
     "Easy girl," he whispered softly. "Easy."
     The spider relaxed, but not completely. Deliberately, it began to move forward. Tap...tap...tap. Johnson was amazed by the creature's grace. Like a ballerina tiptoeing in from the darkened wings of a theatre, it was a marvel of beauty and design. The body, covered by fine grey hair, had the look of velvet, while the eight legs that extended from the thorax provided speed and balance.
     As it approached Johnson, the spider carefully extended one foreleg towards him. Johnson quickly knocked it away with his hand. The creature stopped and cocked its plate-sized head to one side. The eight eyes looked like black fists. Then the leg came forward again. At the tip, Johnson could see the spike-like claw for catching prey. It touched his left shoulder. Through his jacket he could feel the sharp point digging into his skin. Johnson winced and stepped backwards into the wall. But there was no place to go. Slowly, the other foreleg came forward. Johnson recoiled, trying to ward off the attack with his free arm. But the creature was too strong. It brushed his arm aside, as if it was a piece of lint, and planted a second claw into his other shoulder. Johnson cried out, "Help! Help!"
     Then the spider reared up on its hind legs, forcing Johnson to his knees. For a brief moment, he and the creature looked into each other's eyes. It was almost like love. Then he saw the six-inch fangs that extended from the head. Drops of venom gleamed in the half-light. He watched in fascination as the cruel daggers arched high over him; then he screamed as they plunged deeply into his chest. Instantly, white hot pain ripped through his body.
     Then it was gone. The spider had retreated back to the stall. Johnson knew that he only had a minute or two before the poison paralyzed him.
     This is it! he said to himself. My only chance.
     Ignoring his wounds, Johnson turned back to the window. Grabbing at the board, he yanked and pulled, to no avail. Already the venom was having its effect. His hands were numb and his arms felt like lead. Gasping for air, he threw himself at the boards again and again. But it was no use. He was beaten. Great sobs shook his body as he slumped to the floor.
     This can't be happening to me, he protested. It's ridiculous.
     Looking back at the spider, he could see that it still had not moved. What is she waiting for? he wondered. Why doesn't she finish me off?
     He soon had his answer. Shimmering like a great overcoat, there was something on the spider's back. It moved and undulated like a small wave flowing back and forth. Then a piece of the wave pulled away and dropped to the floor. It was another spider, only a lot smaller - about the size of a rat. Johnson recalled that some spiders carry their young on their backs. Horrified, he realized that he had stumbled into their nursery and it was feeding time. Another one dropped to the floor and then another. Soon there was a long line of spiders slowly crawling towards him. Through fading eyesight, he saw the first one reach his foot. Tentatively, its foreleg probed the air, until it found his leg and patted it. It was light and delicate like the touch of a child. Johnson opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came. The last thing Johnson saw before he lost consciousness was a spider tearing a piece of flesh from the back of his hand.
     Back at the farmhouse, the old man picked up the whisky bottle from the kitchen table, poured himself another drink and plopped down on the ancient Lay-z-boy recliner.
     "How long it take, Jake?" asked the old woman.
     "Not long," he grunted. "They ain't et since Sunday."
     "Git a better sign. Attract mo' folks."
     "Nah, the sign's okay. Anyway, we don't need a crowd," said the old man, taking a long, hard swallow.
     "What yer goin' do with his car?" she asked, standing at the window admiring the now ownerless Lexus.
     "I hear young Dougall needs one for runnin' moonshine. Willin' to pay a good price, too," said the old man.
     "Won't he ask questions?" wondered the old woman, pouring a drink and easing herself down onto a dusty couch.
     "Nah. He don't care," snickered the old man. "I'll talk ta him tomorrow. Meanwhile, pass the remote. Let's see what's on Dr. Phil."

The Broken Globe - Geoffrey Smagacz



My brother Timmy's Halloween party started with a parade of high school guys, six packs in hand, piling out of rusted pick-up trucks and climbing the stairs over the garage into a smoky room where loud music blasted through tall free-standing speakers.
     I don't know how he finagled the presence of Diane, cheerleader, since my brother floated with the vocational trade students and not that heady jock circle. But she was there, along with three of her not-quite-as-cute girlfriends, one of whom brought Juanita, a plain and plump foreign exchange student from Mexico.
     Timmy had purchased a keg and strung black-and-orange crepe paper and balloons, tacking them to his ceiling with great care. He'd also vacuumed, and he must have powdered the shag carpet with baking soda or talcum because the place didn't smell like the usual musty beer-soaked dish rag.
     After I'd settled into a bean-bag chair and hit the three-beer threshold, meaning once I'd reached three I couldn't stop, Jim arrived. Don, his sidekick, followed immediately behind him wearing, of all things, creased pants.
     "What are you doing here?" I shouted to Jim, ignoring Don except to note he'd purchased a new pair of glasses with thick exactly rectangular lenses.
     "Your mother said you were up here."
     "What?"
     "Your mother," Jim yelled, pointing in the direction of Mom's house, then pointing to me.
     For a few minutes one of my brother's friends, who'd brought the latest record from a metallic-sounding Southern rock band, cranked up the volume. Several of them joined in the refrain.
     "My brother's throwing a Halloween party."
     "Looks like high school."
     "Hard to pass up a keg."
     "Huh?"
     "Want a beer?"
     "Sure."
     I walked over to the keg where my brother and a couple of his cronies stood guard.
     "You mind if they have a beer?" I asked my brother.
     Timmy glanced at them, glanced at me, shrugged, then went back to sizing up Diane and the girls huddled together in a giggling clique. I expertly filled three plastic cups to capacity, minimum foam, as if I had a certificate in bartending.
     We picked a spot away from the two speakers, but near enough to the keg, which sat in a round metal tub surrounded by chunks of ice. The beer went down smooth. Timmy – or whoever it was who bought the beer for my underage brother – had paid a few extra dollars and purchased Canadian.
     Timmy came over to me and said, "You better fork over some money for all the beer you guys are drinking."
     "He speaks," I said to Jim and Don, as if a lightning bolt struck, juiced Frankenstein, and gave us proof positive that the brain transplant worked.
     "I'm not kidding," he said.
     "OK, we will."
     I looked at Jim and Don, thinking they might divvy up or maybe at least pretend to reach in their pockets but each looked at something else. Then Jim took a long swig.
     "I'll give you some money later," I said. But Timmy turned his back on me and walked toward Diane and the girls.
     "Let's go over to Harry's Tavern and have a few," Jim said.
     "Why not hang out here?"
     "Is this the only style of music your brother likes?" Don asked.
     "I don't know what kind of music he likes," I said. "Take a look through his records," which Don did for the next half hour, sitting on the floor, records between his legs, reading record covers, taking records out of their jackets, and examining the quality of the vinyl.
     "Where's Debra tonight?" I asked Jim.
     "I don't want to talk about that bitch."
     "Huh?"
     "When I told her I was going to go out to have a drink, she blew a gasket. Said I was a drunk."
     I was starting to get tanked. Jim may have had a few before he came.
     "Hey, you gotta cigarette?" I asked one of my brother's beer buddies. He pulled a pack out of his denim jacket and jerked it, causing exactly one filtered cigarette to stick out. He grinned. He was either proud of his feat or proud that he smoked.
     "I think you're getting hooked on those things," Jim said. "You've got a monkey on your back."
     I looked over both my shoulders. "No, I don't."
     "When you've got a monkey on your back you're not free." He took a long swig, then got up and poured out another beer.
     "Look at this," Don said. "You think your brother would mind if I played it?"
     Others had changed records; no one seemed at the helm, so I said, "Wait'll this song finishes." The song Don played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a tune with a sappy story.
     A couple of the guys groaned when it started. Someone said, "What is this shit?" But they let it play almost to the end before the needle scratched across the vinyl and another replaced it on the turntable, a song with screeching, inaudible lyrics.
     I felt a tap on my arm. "Don't let him do that again," my brother said to me.
     Jim's eyes had become slits by the time the subject of Debra came up again.
     "I thought you guys had worked everything out."
     Jim sat there trying to think and talk at the same time. Something tried to bubble to the surface. One of my brother's recessed lights shone directly on Jim's face, making it seem as if he were being interrogated. However, he didn't move out of the light.
     "The plans have been made, right?" I asked him.
     "I don't want to marry that bitch."
     I shook my head a couple of times like a deer flicking off flies.
     "Everything was perfect the other night."
     "The car goes off the road, and then we nearly drown."
     "You two were all lovey-dovey. You put your ear to Deb's belly."
     "That kid. Stupid," he said, banging his fist on his thigh, then swilling another long draught. "This is good beer," he said.
     "We're going to have to come up with a few dollars for the beer."
     "All I have is a twenty."
     I spotted Juanita, standing within earshot.
     "Hola," I said, summoning my knowledge of two years of high school Spanish.
     Juanita smiled, making her cheeks even plumper.
     "Hello," she said, moving closer.
     "Como estas? "
     "You idiot," Jim said to me.
     "Good, and you?" She asked.
     "Muy bien. Yo estudio espa-ol hace… Jim, do you remember how to say it makes so and so many years that I studied Spanish?"
     "Dos, you idiot." Jim had been in one of my classes.
     "Please," she said. "In English."
     "Pero, yo…"
     "Please, no Spanish."
     There must have been drama in the way Juanita held up her hand and shook her head "no" that made Diane walk over and grab her arm.
     "These two bothering you?"
     "No."
     "Come over here," Diane said, after she eyeballed us. A couple of old lechers, she probably thought, though she did smile at me. I figured she knew I was Timmy's brother. As Diane turned, her thick sandy-blond, shoulder-length hair fanned out.
     "Cunts," Jim said.
     "Why do you have to talk like that?"
     "And Deb's the biggest cunt of them all."
     This last thought hung in the air like cigarette smoke. Maybe he assumed I was pondering his profundity, but what I was pondering was why the hell he wanted to get married and why the hell he didn't tell Debra about Lynette.
     "What are you going to do?" I asked.
     He shrugged his shoulders and took another long swig, finishing the contents of his plastic cup. This time he didn't immediately get up to refill it — probably too tanked to exert the energy. He waited for me to finish mine then had me do it.
     "You gonna get married or what?"
     "How can I get married to someone I don't love?"
     "You don't love her?"
     "I'm in love with Lynette."
     "I thought you weren't seeing her anymore?"
     Jim looked to the side, probably some expression he learned as a boy after his father asked him if he knew who broke the neighbor's front window when he'd known full well he'd done it himself.
     "You're not, right?" I asked.
     "Look at this Beatles album," Don said, interrupting us. "This is pristine. There's not a scratch on it."
     "Fuck the album," Jim said. Don took the cue and buzzed off. I poured us two more beers.
     "Lynette's the best fuck I've ever had," Jim said when I returned.
     "I don't want to hear about it."
     "She's incredible. You know what she did Thursday?"
     "I thought you weren't seeing her anymore."
     "She was a virgin you know."
     "You're right back to where you were a couple of weeks ago?"
     "There's nothing like popping a cherry."
     Jim assumed the position of Rodin's Thinker, but sitting Indian style, his chin held up by one arm.
     "I don't know what I'm gonna do," he said.
     "Why don't you tell Debra you're seeing Lynette and get it over with?"
     Jim let out an audible breath of air, put his head down, and ran his hands through his hair.
     "Well?" I said.
     "Well?" he said, imitating my voice.
     "Why don't you just tell Deb?"
     "Why don't I just tell Deb?"
     "Are you making fun of me?"
     He looked up and eyed me with a mean, penetrating stare.
     "I'm just asking a question," I said.
     "If I knew what to do I wouldn't be sitting here drunk."
     "If you told her, she could have an abortion."
     "She's not having an abortion."
     "No?"
     "We talked about that already."
     "What if she knew about Lynette?"
     He must have misread the tone of my voice, because he started to rise. "You better not tell her about Lynette." And then I think I misread his actions because I thought he was going to punch me.
     "I gotta take a piss," he said. He stood for a moment, lost his balance, tried to catch himself, thumped the floor hard enough to make the room shake, and then fell onto one of my brother's friends who helped him stand upright. The kid said, "You all right?"
     "Yeah. Where's the bathroom?"
     "Downstairs in the garage," I said.
     He steadied himself and slowly descended the stairs, a hand holding up each wall.
     A few songs later Don came over to me and said, "Where's Jim?"
     "The sonofabitch probably passed out."
     "Maybe we better check on him."
     "He's old enough to take care of himself."
     "He looked pretty drunk."
     Don descended the stairs. I bummed another smoke and inhaled very deeply, causing a long portion of the cigarette to glow. I looked up at a balloon, then at the end of my cigarette, pulled myself up, took a furtive glance toward my brother in conversation across the room, and popped the damned thing. A couple of guys looked over. My brother, from across the room, said, "Hey." Then I, too, made my exit.
     I didn't see Jim in the toilet or in the garage. As I walked outside, the screen door snapped back, echoing in the alley between the houses. It wasn't enough that the neighbors had to endure the house vibrating or the cars revving up their engines, they also had to put up with that freaking door.
     I could see Jim's red pick-up truck but where the hell was he? As I approached the truck, I heard the gut heave of a man puking, walked around the truck and saw Jim on his knees behind a blue van, his arms on the bumper, letting go the contents of his stomach. He groaned. Don stood aside looking on.
     "You all right?" I asked.
     "Uh."
     "I didn't think he had that much to drink," I said more to myself than to Don.
     "He was drinking shots at Harry's Tavern before we came here," Don said.
     Jim let go again and then groaned some more.
     I stood there thinking maybe Jim deserved to heave out his innards. Maybe if a person poked around the alcohol soup he'd deposited, they could find his heart or his brains.
     "You gonna drive him home?"
     "Yeah," Don said.
     "You got your keys?" I asked Jim
     Jim reached into his pockets, a hand still on the bumper. He vomited one more time.
     "Oh, God," he said.
     I grabbed him by his arm to drag him up. "Come on," I said but, as he stood, Rodney, one of my brother's friends, slipped out of the shadows.
     "What the fuck did you do to my van?" he asked, looking straight at me, obviously judging me by the company I keep. I didn't respond. "I said what the fuck did you do?"
     "Nothing," I said, but better that I hadn't because, with his pointed boot, he aimed a kick at my crotch. I flinched backward, barely escaping serious injury.
     "Puke on your own fucking car," he said, then got into his van, revved up the motor and spun out, flinging stones.
     "Asshole," I said.
     Not until Jim and Don had situated themselves in the cab did Don realize that Jim's truck had a standard shift, and he didn't know how to drive it. He nearly backed into a tree before I realized that I had given him opposite directions on how to shift gears, but he finally figured it out and lurched off slowly.
     After they left, I walked along the garage approaching the snapping door to my brother's lair, sure that I would continue past it and into the house, run upstairs and fall into bed. But as I neared it, three of my brother's friends emerged. I could have walked around them, but I stopped and held open the door for them. One of them said, "Hey, take it easy." Then I made a choice. A door had opened and I entered.
     As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, Diane was trying to poke her arm through the sleeve of her varsity cheerleader jacket marked with the school letters. Her girl friends flanked her sides while Juanita stood behind in the shadows.
     "You leaving?" I asked.
     "Yeah," Diane said.
     "Too bad," I said.
     The ends of her mouth curled into a smile and her nose crinkled.
     "You're cute," she said.
     "You are too," I said, and suddenly our faces came within breathing distance, which is probably the closest I've ever gotten to a cheerleader. Her breath smelled beery.
     She put her lips to my ear, "You're cuter than your brother." Our cheeks brushed together. Her hair smelled smoky clean.
     "Thanks."
     "God, I think I've had too much to drink," she said, snapping me back to reality.
     Suddenly my brother appeared at my side, then pushed in front of me, nearly stepping on my toe.
     "Need help getting to your car?" Timmy asked.
     "No," she said. "We're all right."
     We watched them descend, but, before they reached the last stair, Timmy turned toward me and said "You fucker" loud enough for my ears only.
     "What do you mean?"
     "Why don't you throw your own party?"
     I responded by going to the keg and filling up another plastic cup.
     "Gimme some money for the beer," Timmy said.
     "I said I would."
     "Then hand it over."
     "I don't have it on me."
     "Then that's the last beer."
     The girls were gone; only Timmy's core group of cronies remained. They started a contest to see who could shout the loudest. Then one guy shoved another who pushed him back. He then tried to unbalance another. In moments, a group wrestling match ensued with this tiny mob shifting to the left, and falling en masse, some on the bed and some on the floor, knocking objects off the nightstand. They laughed and shouted. Someone said, "Get off me, you fucker."
     I bummed another smoke from the cigarette guy.
     "I should have bought a pack," I said.
     "No problem. Take a couple."
     "One's enough."
     Then I saw the balloons again — my cigarette and a large balloon. Pop.
     "What's that, a gun?" someone asked.
     "Cut it out," Timmy said. The mob quieted.
     I honed in on another one. Pop. And that was it. My brother extricated himself from the throng and from some deep part of himself shouted "Goddamn you" as he started toward me.
     I bolted down the stairs. He must've taken the steps two, three at a time, because in a moment he was behind me, pushing my back. I ran faster, snapping the door, but he didn't relent.
     "You goddamn sonofabitch. I'm going to kill you."
     I imitated the sound of his voice, no words, only the tone, taunting him. As I ran into the back entryway of Mom's house, I shoved the door in his face. I couldn't quite close it. He pushed with all his might. He didn't have my weight or my strength, but that night, maybe because I was drunk or because of some burst of his adrenaline or some deeper motivation on his part, I could feel myself losing the war. I let go and made a dash for the heavier kitchen door. I slammed it to give myself a minute before running into the kitchen.
     "You bastard," Timmy yelled.
     We'd fought before, we'd gotten into shouting matches or tussles, but something in his voice made me take him seriously.
     The back porch light shone through the kitchen windows, illuminating the stainless steel sink and the enamel kitchen table.
     "Knock it off," I said. I ran around the table. "Cut it out."
     "I'm going to kill you."
     "You're going to wake Mom."
     "I don't care."
     We circled the table again. And again.
     "Damn it. Knock it off."
     "No," he yelled, and as he uttered the word he grabbed the table and flung it upward. As it spun, it shattered the ceiling globe.
     At that moment, Mom jumped out of bed and thumped through the dark house.
     "Goddamn you two. What do you goddamn kids think you're doing? Get the goddamn hell to bed." With each word came the accompanying rhythmic thump of her footfalls, like the telling of a primitive poem. Then, almost like a plaintive refrain, came a very long and loud "Oh, Jesus" as she entered the kitchen.
     Timmy bolted. I turned on the light. Mom had made her way to the bathroom indicated by a trail of blood which began from a sharp shard protruding from the bottom of what a moment before had been a drinking glass. It must have set on the table when Timmy threw it.
     I found the broom in the corner and began sweeping. Broken glass had reached the hallway by the bathroom, and, as I approached the door, Mom said, "Goddamn you two."
     "I didn't do anything."
     "What do you mean, you didn't do anything?"
     "I didn't fling the table in the air. I didn't break the glass."
     "Get me a clean towel."
     I hesitated to go in.
     "I said, get me a goddamn towel."
     I entered. She sat on the tub's edge, her back to me. When she spoke, her words reverberated inside the enamel hollow of the basin. "I wish your father were alive," she said.
     I'd never seen that much blood.
     "Listen, Timmy's the one that started chasing me. He's the one that threw the table in the air."
     "Is that what happened?"
     "Yeah, he threw the kitchen table in the air and broke the ceiling globe."
     "What did you do to him?"
     "Nothing."
     "You must've done something."
     "I didn't do anything."
     "Then why would he chase you?"
     "Because he was drunk, because I flirted with the girl he's interested in, because I popped one of his freakin' balloons."
     "I don't know," Mom said. "I can't stop the bleeding."
     "What do you mean, you can't stop the bleeding?"
     "What did I step on?"
     "The bottom of a glass I think."
     "Get me the hydrogen peroxide." I did. She poured it on her foot without flinching. "I can't understand you two."
     "I told you I didn't do anything."
     "You act like two-year-olds or a couple of drunks. You certainly don't act like brothers." She turned around. "Give me another towel."
     "How are brothers supposed to act?"
     "Don't start with me." She threw a second blood-soaked towel near the first and wrapped her foot with the third. "I don't know if this is going to stop bleeding."
     I went back to sweeping the glass in the kitchen. I upturned the table. As I picked pieces of glass off the stove top, Mom hobbled through the living room and back into bed.
     "I'll tell you this much right now," she said from the other room, "you're not getting the car for a while."
     "How am I going to get to work on Thursdays and Sundays?"
     "You should have thought of that before."
     I was too tired to argue. I slumped at the kitchen table with my head in my hands.
     "How about turning the light off and getting to bed?"
     "In a minute."
     "Now."
     "In a minute."
     A minute passed.
     "Oh Jesus," Mom said with alarm.
     "What?"
     Nothing.
     "What is it?"
     "I can't stop the bleeding. You're going to have to drive me to the emergency room."
     "I thought you said I couldn't have the car."
     "Don't start with me."
     So I drove Mom to the emergency room where she received seven stitches on the arch of her foot, three pints of blood, and a prescription for iron pills.


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