Alkaline Hearts

Charles Kunene

For Made Up Words

A small boy, maybe 11-years-old, was hit by a car while I watched from my window across the street. His mother dropped his school bag as she ran toward his still body; her face aghast as she flew from the curb and onto the road; her trench coat flapping in the wind like a superhero’s cape. There were three women on the curb. One covered her mouth with her right hand, the other was on her knees vomiting and the third yanked her cellphone from her purse, I guessed, to call 911.

My phone buzzed, but I knew it wouldn’t be news from Marnie. I hadn’t heard anything from her in weeks, and I’d stopped expecting to. I scrolled through the infinite stream of chatter unfurling on my Twitter feed and contemplated going to class.

Chalk lines were being drawn on the road as the boy’s mother tried to recall details about the hit and run to a detective. He anxiously flipped through his notebook, just like in the movies. The boy’s blood was still wet and glistened on the road. My own mother was on the pavement, clearly bewildered and waving me away from the window so I wouldn’t look. I didn’t even need to; reporters on the scene were live on the TV in my room.

Occasionally, I watched the live scene from my window, checking to see if the televised movements of the reporter were perfectly in-sync with my live view. I was tempted to dispatch a version of myself onto the street to be interviewed while I watched from my room so I could carry out the same analysis, TV-me versus on-site-me.

It was 9:30 when I decided to ditch class to see my girlfriend. Marnie was smoking pot. I could smell it from the hallway outside her dorm and the stereo was on full blast. She answered the door wearing a faux-fur coat with green and yellow striped leggings. Her hair was disheveled, and she smelled beautiful.

“This kid got hit by a car today, I saw it all happen.”

“You ok?” she asked, looking me over like a curious specimen.

“I don’t know. I feel like I should have cared, like I should be crying or feeling something?”

“It’s not like you knew him, you can’t cry every time someone dies, the world’s bad enough as it is.”

A tiny sliver of light peered into the room through her tilted blinders.

“Can I nap in your bed?”

“Aren’t you going to class?”

May brought with it girls in short-shorts and tight tops― signs of summer’s approach. My friend Derek walked towards me while checking out each girl who passed him by.

He hadn’t changed since high school. Our small town was stuck in limbo; all the kids wore the same clothes, went to the same schools, and worked at the same farm their parents had toiled on.

“I heard the party’s gonna be at the Psi Gamma house. First of the Spring, everyone’s gonna hook up, even us bro,” he said, panting from the heat. He smelled of marijuana. I knew he’d missed class, too.

“Girls aren’t with guys like us for a reason,” I said, feeling my confidence tank.

“What do you mean ‘like us?’”

“Like the fact that your sister drives you to school in her Prius!”

“She likes the environment.” He wiped his brow clean of sweat.

“So does Al Gore, but he ain’t rollin’ in a Priuuus.”

It was about time to gather the squad. Derek and I headed toward the water fountain. A warm gust bristled along my skin stirring the hair on my arm. My red freckles were bright in the sun and embarrassing.

Charlie walked toward us with gusto in his step.

“Told you, Black Ops killed last night; sold over $400 million. Huh?” He thrust his chest at me like a chimp asserting its dominance. I paid him no mind.

“Tom says he can’t come tonight. He’s got to babysit.”

“Why’s he always babysitting?” Derek yelled, his face all red and screwed up.

“It’s that woman, I swear, he’s smitten,” said Charlie, making goo-goo eyes and tip-toeing like a ballerina around the fountain.

We’d gathered to plan our itinerary for the night. As usual, we would pre-game at Charlie’s house since his dad went out to get drunk on Fridays and his mom had her girl’s night out. I left him with $15 as my contribution for the night’s festivities.

I wore my best shirt and doused myself with my dad’s cologne. Marnie hadn’t responded to my texts, and weekends were generally bad if I wanted to contact her. Despite the pungent smell of marijuana, I’d slept in her room and woke up to find her with her laptop between her thighs, headphones on, and head bobbing. We hadn’t had sex in a month, and she’d thwarted my advances with claims to homework, headaches, and the like. Right then, I’d have taken her, but she’d looked at me as though I was an unmentionable, an unremarkable part of her life languishing on her bed. Frequently I’d seen this look, as though I was translucent and that what she could see through me was far more interesting than I was. To be unremarkable; what a curse.

Charlie had an eclectic mix of alcohol collected on the table, and he started handing out shot glasses as soon as I arrived. Derek brought the vodka he stole from his dad’s stash along with a bong, ready-made. He said he’d already drank some on his bike ride over and that some man who drove past him thought the bong was an instrument. ‘Like a flute,’ the man had said.

“Let’s put on some gangsta music” Charlie said, flipping a gang-sign he copied from one of those rap videos. Kendrick Lamar shook the floors of the house.

“Uh, my niggas.” He said as he bobbed his head and pulled his pants down until they sagged.

I filled half my glass with UV Blue then the rest with Sprite. The smell of alcohol made me want to vomit since that time Marnie had me chug half of her Captain Morgan. I always missed her when I was with the boys. Flashes of her smiling, her hair flying in the wind, her arms wrapped around my neck came periodically. The memory was overblown with color and grain like an Instagram filter. It reminded me of VHS.

Marnie didn’t go to clubs; she hung out with her hipster friends on the weekends. In general, I avoided them as much as possible. Their uniform of “spectacles,” unkempt beards, and flannel shirts made it hard to tell if they were real or fake as hell.

We entered through the garage into the Psi Gamma frat house. Daft Punk’s Around the World was drifting off, replaced by a club track. It looked like an orgy — a stew of steamy bodies gyrating under neon light.

Chelsea, the football captain’s latest acquisition, looked me over and then decided she wasn’t interested. She was wearing a tight black dress. She couldn’t even move in it, but she seemed happy, stumbling on her heels. Just then, she uploaded a selfie onto her Facebook, smiling and cocking her left leg to the side. Her friends blew kisses toward her smartphone. We knew Chelsea and her friends would never dance with us, but we had zero interest in the girls who were actually in our league. The fruits of hubris.

“Well gentleman, she just posted a pic,” Derek grinned. We were stalking the same chick.

“Feels like creeping,” I said.

“What?” he grimaced.

“Looking at her pics. I mean, she’s right there.”

“It’s Facebook, they’re public property. Once it’s out there it’s not yours anymore.”

We stared back at them as they placed their hands on their waists, pouting their lips and arching their backs, their legs forming a soft figure four. I wondered if they cared who could see them—punks like us, stalkers, whoever. Perhaps they watched us too, forming a strange loop of us watching them, them watching us watching them, us watching them watching us watching them, this, running on for infinity.

“Haven’t seen you with Marnie in a while. Are you sure she’s still your girl?” Charlie grinned.

“She’s with her friends and that’s all I gotta say,” I said, as firmly as I could.

“I don’t get why you’re with her. I understand that whole high school love stuff, but you’re in college now.”

“Yeah I know, but…”

“No buts about it,” Charlie snapped.

No one understood. I had given Marnie my heart, though I wished I could take it back. I wondered if she lugged it around, maybe even placed it in her purse. Whether it could hear her when she was with her other man. Did she even check on it, to make sure it was still beating?

She didn’t smoke pot in high school. She was on the debate team and beat me at chess, twice. We made it to the debate finals together, and when the confetti drizzled on our heads, she clasped my hand and winked.

Mrs. Whishaw, Marnie’s mother, had lost it while we were still in high school. Then, I didn’t think it was a big deal. She would stand at the corners of her bedroom, moving toward the leftmost corner each time. This was a pattern that the family doctor did not explain. She would mumble and place her fingers inside her mouth as if feeling out its space. Then she’d run her hands over her body, perhaps re-learning that she had one. She wore the same white night gown every day.

Marnie would place the palms of her hands on each side of her mother’s face and would stare until her mother’s fleeting memories momentarily galloped to a stop, and she could recall her daughter.

The news was all over the school; Marnie’s mom was nuts. Soon after, Marnie turned mute. I can remember the wind tugging at her shirt as I walked her home, her arms holding her books close to her chest like a shield. She stared forward, her eyes fixed on a point I couldn’t see. Her body stiffened when I wrapped my arm around her; she turned into an iron puppet pivoting on its creaky metal limbs. I watched her close the door to my face with no goodbye.

The next week I spent my lunches caressing the tufts of her hair while she froze where she sat. Sometimes a girl would pass by, holding her nose as though she would catch something dirty in the air. The boys would sniff her then howl like a noxious fume had clasped their throats, strangling them. Marnie began to keep her hands close to her chest afraid that something — I didn’t know what — would spill out.

When she finally spoke, she told me she wanted to disappear, to literally disperse into the wind like gusts of spray pitted against immovable stone. She had begun slumping her shoulders. I did the same in grade school, hoping to make myself too small for the bullies to notice. I could vanish in the midst, I could become one of the sounds of recess: a small shriek from a girl being teased with a frog, the insistent flapping of paper battling against the wind, or the clank of lockers as they gaped their mouths open and were shut again.

The hallway was empty when she tried to vanish. She’d walked ahead of me, slow and with intention. Then suddenly, she began to spread out her arms. I started to laugh, but stopped myself. She screamed, and like muscle desperately grasping the ends of a rope, the sounds of recess reached crescendo. I felt the ribs of the sounds heave and shift beneath muscle, felt the muscle contort; heard the snap and crackle of bone shifting left and then up. I thought the sky would explode.

Charlie burst into my room, hurled his resume on the floor then pronounced, “Report from the front-line: the American dream is dead.”

“Guess you didn’t get the job then.”

“Eleven interviews, dude, and they always got some bullshit requirements. What does ‘strong analytical skills’ mean? I’m trying to get work at the movie theatre for the summer; you’d swear it was MIT.”

He threw himself on my bed with a sigh.

“You know those guys, like our parents, who wanted to be something but never were?”


“That’s us, bro.”

He lay expelling a gust of nothing, breathing in the dusk. I could see his eyes trail the ladybug on the ceiling; a fledgling nonentity seemingly oblivious to the scope of the world it lived in. The silence wore long; it became a dense cloud exploding onto the surface of a teacup, fighting off the wispy manacles of its dark origins. Charlie’s face was now vacant; the brief explosion had left no mark.

“ Let’s pick up Tom and D. I wanna see the guy Marnie’s with when she’s not with me.”

We stopped by the side of the road and watched Tom’s mom and the woman he babysat for talking in the driveway. Tom came out, gave his mom a kiss, and hugged the lady, just a touch too long.

“Sup,” he said, smiling like the Cheshire cat. He was clearly enamored.

“We’re gonna bash that hipster dude,” Derek said with glee. He flashed his dad’s Taser like a concealed gun. Tom looked confused. “You know. The one who’s banging Marnie.”

“Alright then,” Tom said. “Let’s fry him up.” He climbed into the Prius.

I found Marnie draped on Travis’ couch, breathing slow as she slept. The apartment seemed empty, and the smell of freshly blazed weed agitated my nose. I shook her awake as Tom walked in.

I once saw her arm stained blue with a bruise. Travis had roughed her up; he’d left his mark while mine was nowhere to be found. His knowledge of me was hypothetical. I’d grabbed her in a fit of rage once and shook her, hoping a shard of me would fall to the floor — proof that I’d been there, like graffiti on a bathroom stall, ‘Jack was here ‘08.’ I’d left a blue-black blotch on her paper-white skin, and somehow I thought it was enough for me to lay claim to her.

“Dude’s coming, alone.”

I fortified myself and stood firm on the ground. I looked at my boys and we nodded in unison. Travis held a white bag of groceries, and his torn jeans were slung loosely around his waist. He swiveled the door open and stood facing us, calculating the variables. He looked at Marnie for answers but she was still groggy, sprawled on the couch.

“What do you want?” he asked, walking past us slowly toward the kitchen counter.

Charlie searched my face for a sign; there was none. I was vexed on the spot, my feet had grown roots and planted themselves to the ground. He reached for his dad’s Taser.

“Do you know who I am?” I said, finally.

“Marnie’s guy,” Travis said. He was calm; he knew the score.

“Yeah, I want you to stop seeing her.”

All this while he had had his back toward us, and then he turned to face me.

“That’s the lady’s choice.” He smiled confidently.

Marnie watched us out of the corner of her eye. She faced a dim hallway leading into darkness, I bet she hoped the floor would slide open and gulp her up momentarily. Her bangs hovered above her eyes and I could see muscle move from beneath the skin of her cheeks.

“You should go,” she said. I wondered who she was talking to.

Travis and I locked eyes. “That means you, muchacho,” he said.

Marnie didn’t say anymore. She stood up and was swallowed by the dark hallway. The only sign of life we heard was the spray of the showerhead.

The sky peeled orange as I lay on my bed. Derek had forgotten his Taser in my room. Sounds of a dog barking wafted past my ears. The neighborhood was peaceful, it was that time when mothers opened their doors calling their children to supper and the children reluctantly say goodbye to their friends and the remnants of play littered the road—soccer balls, baseball bats and abandoned Barbie’s missing a limb or two.

The small boy’s chalk marks had faded slightly and spilled over to become part of a game of hopscotch. His blood vanished from the concrete. The boy’s death hadn’t even been original, whatever marks he left would be appropriated by the streets, taking on new meanings and meandering past their original form to become part of the new.

My heart was still in Marnie’s purse but it didn’t report back anymore. Maybe it had stopped beating after all, maybe she showed it to Travis at times, and they toyed with it, poking each ventricle to see if her voodoo spell had worked.

I stood by the same window where I’d seen the boy hit by a car. Marnie never came to my house anymore, but but there she was, walking up my driveway, combing her fingers through her hair. Her mascara had left black smudges on her cheeks.

She kissed me, holding her body close to mine. She placed her palms on my cheeks, her eyes searching mine, darting back and forth, reaching past the chasm between us then retreating back. What could I say to this girl who I wanted to love even as she smelled of another man’s bed?

“Say something.”

“You have to dump me,” I implored.

“YOU dump me.”

“You know I can’t.”

She smirked as she slowly closed the door and put on my stereo. As we lay on my bed I took a swig of her scent and felt it burning my throat and warming my gut. Her small breaths were wet against my forearm and the room had gone dark, taking on the hue of the night. It was as if the darkness had sent a signal quieting all sound. It might have been the first time, and to think of it, maybe the last, but she hadn’t blazed weed that day.

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Copyright 2016 | Editor Veronica Montes

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