Fiction by Nathan Graziano
The first suggestion was toilet paper. Then, as I watched Geoff’s gapped grin spread across his face, I knew that eggs were going to be involved, too.
Larry’s house was going down.
It was Halloween in 1987, and I was twelve years old. The day before, my parents sat down my sister and me at the kitchen table to give us their speech — not to be confused with The Speech, the infinitely awkward birds and bees business. I never got that one from either of my parents. I learned about sex by flipping through a stack of Hustler magazines that Geoff’s older brother, Paul, hid in his bedroom closet. After walking in and finding us with his magazines fanned out on the floor one day, Paul gave us the boiled-down-to-the-essentials version of The Speech. It went: “If your dick is pointing up, put a rubber on it.”
Instead, my parents were about to give us the other speech no kid wants to hear. Mom sat across from Anna and me with her hands folded on the table, while my father paced back and forth behind her, his head down, puffing a Marlboro and palming a can of Budweiser.
Mom said, “We want you both to know that we love you very much, and this is in no way your fault.” The muscles in her face tightened as she patted her eyes with a tissue she was holding.
I had been expecting this. The previous week, while my mom was working the second shift at the hospital, I overheard my father on the telephone in their bedroom, telling the person on the other line that he was leaving Mom. However, my sister Anna, who was two years younger than I, didn’t suspect a thing. As soon as my mother told us they were getting a divorce, Anna leaped up from her chair and bolted to her room, her hands covering her face.
Then my parents started getting into it.
“That went well. Good plan, Julia,” my father said, as he cracked open another can.
“Why do you always have to be such a son of a bitch, Don?”
“Our son is right here.”
“He should know it, too. You’re a son of a bitch.”
I had enough and got up and went to Geoff’s house. Geoff’s mother, who divorced his dad when Geoff was too young to remember, worked two jobs and was hardly ever home. At first, Mom didn’t want me going over there when his mother wasn’t around, claiming she heard rumors about Geoff’s older brother and didn’t trust him to watch us. Now, with black pouches beneath her eyes and the skin on her face pale and drawn, Mom was tired of fighting — tired of fighting with me, tired of fighting with my father — and when I said I was going to Geoff’s, she relented with a flick of her wrist.
My father didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look at me when I said I was leaving.
While Halloween was already ruined, for whatever reason, Geoff and I still felt the need to dress the trees in our neighbor’s front yard with toilet paper and pelt his house with eggs.
By 3 p.m. on Halloween, we were sitting cross-legged on the floor in Geoff’s bedroom, surrounded by the posters of our New England sports heroes. On one wall, Roger Clemens stood on the pitcher’s mound, mid-delivery, his head turned to an imagined hitter. Beside it, Larry Bird was lining up a jumper on an invisible hoop, and across the room, on the closet door, Andre Tippett was about to level a crushing blow on some ghostly halfback trying to turn up the field. From the pillowcase he would later use to collect candy, Geoff pulled out two rolls of toilet paper and a carton with half a dozen eggs he lifted from his fridge.
“I have something else,” he said, reaching under his bed for a shoebox filled with baseball cards, the entire 1986 Topps collection. He took something out of the shoebox and closed his hand around it. “Guess what it is.”
“Your mother’s underwear,” I said, standing up. “Let’s listen to Bon Jovi.”
“Paul says Bon Jovi are homos. He says Jon Bon Jovi has AIDS, and we should listen to Metallica instead.”
Shrugging, I rewound the cassette of Slippery When Wet in Geoff’s deck to “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I liked the introduction, the voice box; and the couple in the song, staying together through all those hard times, reminded me of my parents — when they used to get along, that is. Like the guy in the song, my father once played the electric guitar in a band, and I remember when he sold his Stratocaster after his band broke up. That’s when he started getting drunk every night.
“What’s in your hand?” I said to Geoff.
Geoff held out his fist, unfurling one finger at a time. In his palm laid something that looked like a shriveled cigarette. “I stole it from my brother.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a joint, retard. It’s supposed to make you go psycho,” he said. “I figured we’d smoke it before hitting Larry’s house tonight.”
Panic shot down my arms, and my jaw hung open like it were attached by wires. As a pledged member of Nancy Reagan’s D.A.R.E. program, I had signed a contract stating I’d “Just say no,” and I’d seen the commercial with the fried egg — this is your brain on drugs — a million times. Drugs were bad, potentially deadly.
But there was another part of me that liked the idea of being bad and taking drugs. Little was I aware that this part of me would eventually seize control over my life, like it did with my father, and, eventually, this part of me would turn me into a son of a bitch, like my father, who was little help when it came to helping me make good decisions. On the night after my fifth-grade teacher — a gray-haired woman who genuinely feared anything illegal — talked to us about marijuana, warning us that it could make you go crazy and fry your mind, I went home and asked my father if it were true, if smoking pot would make me go crazy. He grinned, shrugged, and opened a beer. “Ask your mother,” he said. Soon after, Len Bias, the first-round draft pick for the Celtics, died from a cocaine overdose, and that was when Geoff, all the guys in our class, and I signed the D.A.R.E. pledge. Just say no. No way. Never.
Someone knocked on the bedroom door, and Geoff’s eyes widened. Terrified, he tossed the joint under his bed.
“Open the door, shit stain.”
Geoff unlocked the door, and Paul strolled in, his thumbs hitched in the belt loops of his nut-hugger acid-washed jeans. He sported a faded Iron Maiden T-shirt and dirty-blond hair, feathered in the front and brushing his shoulders in the back. Immediately, he went to the cassette deck and shut off the music.
“Bon Jovi’s a faggot,” he said. “Listen, dildos, Deb’s coming over, and I’m closing my door. If either of you interrupts us, I’ll rip off your arms.” He looked at me. “Does what’s-her-name still babysit you?”
“Danielle,” I said, although Paul knew her name and once shared a rather thorough list of things he would like to do, sexually, to her face. “She says you’re a druggie.”
“Tell her she’s a slut,” Paul said, running a black comb that surfaced from his back pocket through his hair. “She’s got big tits, though. I’d like to suck on one of those melons, if you know what I mean.”
I glanced at Geoff. While I had looked at the breasts on the girls in Paul’s Hustler magazines, the appeal was not exactly sexual — yet. The thrill, instead, lay in seeing what I was clearly not meant to see, what was always being hidden from me. But that would soon change. Within two years, I’d be willing to crawl on my stomach through a pile of razor blades and shards of broken glass to get my hands on a set of breasts.
Paul then flipped us the double-birds, grabbed his balls, and made for the door. “Catch you later, faggots.”
As soon as Paul left, Geoff was, again, holding the joint and letting it roll in his cupped hand. “This won’t make us act like him, will it?”
My father didn’t come home for dinner that night. This was the first time my father skipped dinner, the first of many dinners missed, until he would finally move out of the house and in with his girlfriend after New Year’s.
Mom, still wearing her nurse’s scrubs from work, tried to be nonchalant by humming “Bridge over Troubled Water” while we waited. After twenty minutes with the pork chops and potatoes and green beans warming in the oven, she resigned herself to the fact that he wasn’t coming home and told Anna and me to grab plates. Deep down, I think Mom still wanted their marriage to work, despite the fact that my father was cheating on her. For the first six months after he moved out, I would hear Mom on the phone at night with one of her sisters, her face to the kitchen wall, crying and spitting my father’s name like it was poison. And it was.
My father, on the other hand, was already dating our babysitter’s mother, Lynn, who would later become my stepmother, and he never mentioned Mom’s name, unless Anna or I brought her up. Danielle stopped babysitting for us soon after my father stopped showing up for dinner.
At first, no one spoke at the kitchen table, and our silverware scraping the plates amplified the silence. Mom tried smiling, but her eyes, glossed-over and focused on the wall clock, weren’t into it. Next, she tried awkward conversation.
“What are you going to dress as tonight, Vince?”
“I’m borrowing an Alf mask from Geoff,” I said, without looking up from my plate.
“Are you going trick-or-treating, or are you too old for that?” While not oblivious to it, my mother found my approaching adolescence unsettling, bothersome, like a dull ache that’s difficult to locate.
I continued to stare at my plate. “Maybe,” I mumbled, careful to conceal my real plans.
I’m still not entirely sure why we were so hell bent on hitting Larry’s house, or why we had to get high to do it. The ostensible reason, I guess, was that Larry — a beer-bellied man in his mid-thirties with a trimmed beard and narrow eyes — was an asshole. He was obsessed with his lawn and ornery about it, sometimes threatening the neighborhood kids who trespassed on it. While well aware of this, it still didn’t stop me from cutting through his yard to get to Geoff’s house. A couple of times, Larry caught me on his lawn and came to his door and screamed, threatening to call the cops as I sprinted away.
Larry and his wife were one of the few couples in our suburban neighborhood, which was twenty miles east of Providence, without kids of their own. And when it came to dealing with other people’s children, Larry was a notorious dick, especially when it came to the boys. Rumors had circulated that Larry once pulled a shotgun on Mike Hague, whose family moved to Hawaii when I was in the second grade, but no one could prove the story. Paul and some of his stoner buddies swore it had happened, but no one actually saw it. Regardless, when Geoff and I were making plans to hit Larry’s house that Halloween, that shotgun lingered in our minds like a phantom limb.
“What about you, Anna?” Mom asked and smiled at my sister. But, again, Mom’s eyes weren’t into it. “Are you going out with your friends tonight?”
“You said you were going to take me out trick-or-treating.”
“Did I?” My mom slapped her hand against her forehead. “That’s right. I did.” Her head jerked back like she’d been grabbed by the hair, then snapped forward into her hands. Then Mom — the unshakeable foundation in our family, the woman who made our meals and checked our homework and attended to our every need — was bawling into her small, thin hands.
Stunned and confused, I stood up and rubbed Mom’s back as Anna draped her arms around Mom’s neck. The weeping continued for what seemed a long time. In actuality, it was no longer than a minute.
Finally, Mom lifted her head and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “That son of a bitch,” she said, sniffling. Then she looked at me. “Don’t grow up to be a son of a bitch.”
And, lo and behold, I did.
Pell Elementary School was within walking distance of our houses, so when Geoff and I needed a spot to smoke the joint, we decided to go to the playground, which we knew would be dark and empty. We sat side by side on the swings with our feet dangling off the ground, trying to decide which end of the joint to light.
“My dad’s cigarettes have filters,” I said, the Alf mask — with its large latex snout and faux orange fur — on my lap. “Light the end with the filter.”
“Joints don’t have filters, you dumb shit.” Geoff was dressed as a deranged hobo, wearing a faded pair of his father’s old pants and red suspenders. With his mother’s black eyeliner, he penciled a scruffy beard on his pale, freckled skin and was carrying a toy shotgun, which, he said, made him deranged. When he flicked the lighter, his bald face glowed in the flame and, for a moment, I could see what Geoff would look like as an adult. “I guess it doesn’t matter which end I light,” he said.
He placed the joint between his lips and slowly, like a lazy sunrise, lifted the flame to the end of it. The paper caught, and Geoff made a slurping noise like he was sucking through a straw. He held his breath as the smoke funneled from his nostrils and lips like an engine overheating, then he coughed a tremendous cloud, hacking for a good minute before handing me the joint.
“I can feel it already, Vince,” he said. “I think I’m stoned.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“I swear to God. I feel thick. Like my skin is really thick.”
When I went to hit the joint, it had gone out, so I had to relight it and ended up torching half the thing in the process. The paper burned unevenly, which I had never seen with my father’s cigarettes, and I took a tiny hit, not giving the smoke the opportunity to fill my mouth before I was blowing it out and gagging. We went back and forth like this a couple of times, trying to seem casual and comfortable in our new roles as pot smokers.
Then, a pair of headlights lit up the slide to the left of us. I was holding the joint and, horrified, dropped it on the ground and ran with Geoff into the woods beyond the playground. Hiding behind trees, we watched as a black Camaro parked in a teacher’s spot outside the playground and switched off the headlights. With the engine running, the passenger door opened, and Whitesnake’s “Here We Go Again” blasted from the car stereo. A girl got out.
“I’ll be right back,” the girl said and closed the car door. I recognized the voice as Danielle’s, my babysitter, and although neither of us knew it at the time, in less than a year, she would become my stepsister.
The passenger window rolled down. “Do you want me to spark one?” called a male voice from inside the car. “You like to fuck when you’re high, right?”
Danielle giggled. “I like to fuck when I’m not.”
She approached the woods, humming something tuneless as her footsteps grew louder, like she was a character in a horror film, unaware of the madman who lurked in the darkness. Frozen by fear, Geoff and I held our breath. I put on my Alf mask, just in case.
A few feet into the woods, Danielle stopped and unbuckled her jeans, standing in front of the tree Geoff was hiding behind. From the corner of my eye, I watched as she pulled down her panties and squatted. Listening to her urinate thrilled me, much more than the naked women from the magazines. And by the time Danielle stood straight and zipped up, I had an erection that I didn’t understand. I didn’t feel high, just guilty.
As she was walking back to the car, Danielle stopped at the swings, bent down, and picked up the joint I dropped and sniffed it. “Hey Casey,” she said, as she opened the car door, “you’re never going to guess what I found.”
Geoff looked at me and cocked his head in the direction of the woods. “Let’s get out of here,” he whispered, and we booked it back to the neighborhood with Larry’s house lingering in our crosshairs.
“You don’t feel anything? Not even lightheaded?”
“I don’t feel anything,” I said, taking off the Alf mask. The chilled night air felt good against my skin. The streets were mostly empty, and the porch lights were switched off. The October moon was almost full, with the exception of a nibble bitten off its corner, and the streetlights held our shadows, giant versions of us, on the concrete. I wanted to go home, but Geoff talked me into hitting Larry’s house first. We decided not to toilet-paper the tree in front. It was too dangerous, and both of us were tired.
“I’m definitely feeling something,” Geoff said, “but I’m not sure what it is. I think I’m high.”
“I don’t know,” I said, conceding to a bit of lightheadedness. “Maybe I am, too.”
We turned onto Larry’s street, which had a cul-de-sac at the end and more woods beyond it. “What time do you have to be home?” Geoff asked.
I flipped on my mask. “My mom didn’t say.” And she hadn’t. She had barely noticed me leave. “My parents are getting divorced,” I said. It was the first time I said it aloud, and the words tumbled off my tongue like tiny stones.
“That sucks.” Geoff held the pillowcase with the toilet paper and eggs in one hand and the toy shotgun in the other. “I don’t remember my parents getting divorced. It seems like they’ve always hated each other.” Then, Geoff grabbed me by the arm. “Stop. Get down.”
We crouched behind a gray hatchback parked in front of Larry’s house. The house lights were off, except for a window in the basement, where the bluish glow of a television set shimmered in the frame. Maybe Larry was watching a show with his wife, a thin woman named Fran. His wife usually worked the graveyard shift at the hospital, so people rarely saw her. The shade in one window, which I assume was their bedroom, was always pulled down during the daytime. Mom went to high school with Fran, and I remember Mom telling my father at dinner one night how she would occasionally run into Fran at the hospital. She told him that Fran and Larry were “still trying,” which meant nothing to me at the time. If I’d understood it then, I like to think that I wouldn’t have done what I was about to do. But that’s probably not true. I was already beginning to show the signs of a son of a bitch.
Geoff reached in the pillowcase and handed me an egg. “After we throw them, run.”
With the egg in the palm of my hand, I closed my fingers around it, and the egg seemed to disappear. My father would always brag about the wild things he did with his friends when he was younger. One time, he got arrested for getting drunk and streaking through the police station, and another time, one Halloween in high school, he and his buddies stole a bunch of pumpkins from people’s front steps and put them on the principal’s lawn. To the day he died of lung cancer, my dad liked to talk about playing with his band and going out to gigs and raising hell. Then, unfortunately, he had to grow up, or so he’d tell us, shaking his head while sipping a beer. He went and got married and had kids and nothing was ever fun again, he’d say. Now, I thought, he’s leaving us to have fun again.
I wound up and threw the egg at the house. It hit the front siding beside the door. Geoff threw his and hit a window. The porch light switched on, and Geoff and I turned and sprinted down the street, running until we hit the woods, then stopping to catch our breath.
Geoff said, “That was awesome.”
“Do you have any more eggs?”
“Let’s do it again.”
“Do you feel high yet?”
“I’m definitely feeling something.”
The 2013 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FIRST PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the first place winner for the 2013 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The first place winner receives a printed certificate, an honorarium, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, printed publication in Poiesis Review #6, two complimentary copies of the journal, and our virtual medallion created by the lovely folks at Hardly Square, for personal and professional use on the author’s websites, blogs, and book covers.
Nathan Graziano is a high school teacher with an MFA in fiction writing from The University of New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry, Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside, 2007), and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside, 2009); two collections of short prose, Frostbite (GBP, 2002) and Hangover Breakfasts (Bottle of Smoke Press, 2012); and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. His latest collection of flash fiction, Almost Christmas, will be released in summer 2017 from Redneck Press. His work has appeared in numerous literary publications and websites, such as Word Riot, The Hawaii Review, The Good Men Project, Night Train, Rattle, and Nerve Cowboy. His short story, “Fishbone,” was a finalist for The Norman Mailer Award in 2011, and he has a trophy to prove it. In his spare time, he enjoys writing bios about himself in third person that make it seem like any of this crap matters. Find him at his website.
Story originally published Go Read Your Lunch on 6/3/13.