Department of Bad Trips

“Gentrified Chicken”

by Phillipp Daniels

The place was the same, but it was different. What I mean is the layout was all there: As soon as you walked in there was a seating area with a bar to the left and restrooms in the back. That’s where the similarities ended.

The tables were neatly arranged, renovated Catholic school cafeteria tables in fun colors like red and yellow. The bar top shined like a diamond and was tended by a man with combed hair and square-frame glasses. The restrooms smelled like fresh linen and had little signs on the doors designating one for men and one for women.

Stepping outside for a moment I checked the address to make sure it was still the Full Moon, and it was. So I walked back inside and immediately wobbled the waiter station. Was that always there? Sarah whipped her head towards me and asked in a stern whisper if I was high.

“Sure, but it’s not that,” I assured her as I checked out the artwork of sail boats and mountains and flowers adorning the white satin walls.

A waiter in a crisp white buttoned down shirt tucked into Levi’s led us to a table in the back. As quickly as we sat down, another swooped in with a nondescript bottle of chilled water and poured each of us a tumbler. A third waiter was waiting for the second to finish before he stepped forward and offered menus, lunch menus, drink menus and special menus, before rattling off a description of “special” specials not listed on any of the menus that the regulars just raved about.

Sarah ordered right away and he told her it was a fine choice. Then his head snapped over towards me.

“And for you, sir?”

I didn’t get a chance to thumb through any of the menus and had already forgotten the specials. “I’ll just have a cheeseburger.”

“Mm hmm,” he mumbled with faux enthusiasm through pursed lips. He waited a beat with his hands clasped behind his back before leaning forward and asking, “And how would you like that done?”

“Just medium, I guess.”

“Would that be medium rare or medium well?”

“Just medium.”

“Mm hmm and your choice of cheese?”

“I dunno, something yellow. What do you have?”

“Red Leicester, Gruyere, Camembert de Normandie and Mimolette.”

“Do you have American?”

He smiled gently and said, “No.”

“The first one you said is fine.”

“And what type of a bun would you like that served atop?”

I looked over at Sarah and back up at the waiter. He continued, “We have ciabatta, British muffin, corn dusted roll and brioche.”

“The first one you said is fine.”

He leaned forward and again gently smiled as he tapped the table with his fingertips. “Excellent. I will put this in for you right away.”

Sarah took a drink from her tumbler. As she held it she took her napkin and wiped the ring of water from the table top that it had left behind. Behind her were two women who looked young but dressed old in flow-y button down shirts with flowers on them and wide-legged jeans. They each pulled their hair back in a neat ponytail. In between them was a baby banging his plastic spoon against the table.

“Henry,” one of the women cooed, “We mustn’t do that.” He just yelled and kept going.

The other woman flicked her wrist and said, “Oh he must be gassy. I know my Cooper does the same thing when he gets gassy.”

The other woman became concerned. “Do you really think so? He’s on a natural vegan diet and absolutely no processed foods.” She fell to all fours and crawled behind the high chair. Then she began rooting around his ass with her nose.

“Do you smell a pooper?” The other woman asked.

“I think I do!” She stood up and lifted Henry from his high chair. Just to be sure, she pulled his ass up to her face again and sucked in a deep breath. “I do smell a pooper!” He screamed and cried as she flipped him around and gently dragged a fingertip up and down his belly. “Who’s a little pooper? Yes you are! You are a little pooper!”

Sarah stared at the table as she said, “I heard they have a really good side salad here.”

I walked over to the restroom, but little Henry was in there getting changed. I could still hear that woman’s haunting coo as she continued talking to him.

To the right was a swinging door and as a waiter walked through it I could see a glowing exit sign not far off. So I stuck a foot in between the doors and snuck out the back.

A chick cop on a ten speed rolled up as I was pissing against the wall in the alley. She smiled as she handed me a citation for $250 and asked if I had anything to say for myself.

“What the fuck happened to this place?” I asked her.

*****

It wasn’t always like this. Not too long ago you were greeted by a thick cloud of smoke upon entering the Full Moon. You ordered a drink from a bar tender in a baggy white t-shirt with a whispy mustache and pissed in a bathroom with no door, but plenty of graffiti on the walls that ranged from existential questions to numbers to call for a good time. It was customary to find a seat between a rugged beardo in a flannel and a drag queen.

It was there I met Sarah, a long faced kind of girl with greasy hair and nothing going on after the bar closed. I remember stumbling into the place half rapped and sitting next to her. She smelled like Camel Lights and cucumber lotion. I remember taking in a deep breath of her before starting up a stupid conversation about Lady Gaga, who was on the juke box at the time. She loved her and so did I. We talked for a while and I bought her several drinks on a credit card I would never be able to pay off. Sarah wasn’t able to make eye contact on account of her crippling introversion, but she just kept talking  with her chin tucked down and her knees pulled up to her chest about how her friends stood her up and how her ex boyfriend was gay. She said she knew it because she caught him emailing tranny hookers on Craigslist. After her he only dated fat chicks, she said, a sure sign that he was hiding something.

I just nodded and kept ordering drinks. As the night went on the place got more crowded when the cooks and wait staffs of more respected places wandered in, knowing the dump was a sanctuary to bitch about their clientele. I went to the bathroom after a while and some beardo stole my seat, but Sarah said it didn’t matter. We found a two-stool table in the back of the room and just as I was sitting down she reached underneath and dragged a drunken hand up and down my thigh, the fingertips playing in the ridges of my corduroy. It wasn’t sexual, but rather loving, caring and gentle. After a while she stopped and leaned over her drink. “You’re never going to talk to me again,” she said. Then nearly crying, whispered, “I’m sorry.”

I took her home, but my roommate Billy was too stoned and paranoid to leave the house on account of a car he saw parked outside that afternoon that was still there. His reasoning? “I ain’t never seen it before so it must be up to no good!” I had tried to explain to him a million times that in the city these things happen and you can’t count on familiarities. But he was raised to be suspicious of the unknown while growing up on a dirt farm in western South Carolina. This rendered him void of all cultural formalities. For example, the day he moved in he parked in Mr. Gardner’s handicap spot. It was clearly marked with the street sign and everything, but Billy had never even seen a handicap sign before and thought nothing of it.

Anyway, I took Sarah down to the concrete block basement with the idea of spreading her out over a washing machine.  But she was gentle and she was vulnerable and I couldn’t help but talk to her all night as we sat atop a mismatched washer and dryer listening to the dry heaving and alleyway fistfights going on right outside the splintered wooden door that led to my building’s basement. I asked to see her face and she looked at me for a moment before snapping her chin back to her chest and tucking back into her comforting ball. Quickly, I fell for her and asked her to spend the night and made her breakfast in the morning and did anything I could to keep her.

We’ve been together ever since.

*****

The changes were subtle. Like all big city facelifts, they started in the black blocks. Little by little those neighborhoods were demolished and brand new townhomes lacking the hundreds of years of built-in charm popped up. They were filled at first by lawyers and pharmaceutical sales reps who marveled at how “safe” this part of town had become.

Things started moving fast when a steel skeleton appeared atop the hill, overlooking the Allegheny River. Within a few months a Children’s Hospital was there, prompting a flow of doctors and nurses and administrators to gobble up Lawrenceville properties. Families that had lived in the same houses and blocks for generations were relocated after receiving offers they couldn’t refuse. Local legislature was adjusted to speed up the changes. These doctors and big wigs were given huge tax incentives to buy and remodel or outright demolish the Lawrenceville as we knew it and start over.

Butler Street, the main drag of town that ran along the river, was overrun with juice bars and boutique stores that sold grimy military coats for exorbitant prices. You couldn’t even see these new people as they walked the streets with iPads covering their faces.

We lived on 53rd. Most of those changes happened between 40th and 47th street, but we felt the squeeze of progress coming right at us. Walking down the road proved it: Suddenly the trash cans weren’t overflowing and cars were rocking bumper stickers that said “I (heart) LV”.

“What are we going to do when they take over our block?” Sarah wondered aloud before pointing out a pile of fresh dog shit (Sometimes it’s good to be with someone who can’t look up).

“I guess head further down the road to Morningside,” I shrugged. She flicked me off. “Or head up to Polish Hill?” I said.

She sighed and said, “This place is special, you know? You don’t just move to a new neighborhood and find this mix of people that all get along and don’t worry about the same bullshit everyone else does. It’s so sad to see it turn into just another place.” She took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. “I’ve been searching for something like this my whole life. I never fit in until I found Lawrenceville. And now we can’t stay here? This just isn’t fair.”

I put an arm around her dirty fur coat that smelled like her dog and said. “It wasn’t fair to anyone else they stomped on like a roach and built on top of. They won’t mind doing it to us, especially knowing now that they can get away with it.”

*****

“How about Chucky’s?” I said, knowing she was always down for Chucky’s Chicken, a deep fried mecca with an 8-piece meal served in a shoe box that was just to die for. By the time you took it home the wax paper that lined the bottom was soaked and stuck in place. Biting into a piece released a gush of glistening greases that would either burn the roof of your mouth or drip down your hand and wrist and puddle on the floor beneath you. It was enough to make you want to deepthroat your own fist.

Chucky’s was a shithole tucked in an alley between 48th and 49th streets. It usually reeked of the dumpster out back and the fried chicken. It smelled like neither as we crossed into what had become a horror show. White linens had replaced splintered picnic tables. The hardwood floor was shiny and covered in polyurethane. The waiters smiled.

I grabbed a menu from the waiter station and turned quickly away from the maître d as he tried to recover it from me. I whirled around to Sarah, who had pulled strands of hair from either side of her head around her face like drapes, and read the menu aloud.

“Panko coated roasted chicken sprinkled with cilantro and goat cheese? Apple fries?” I turned back to maître d and asked what was going on.

“Well,” he began as he clasped his hands in front of him and tuned up his snarkiest voice, “fat frying has been outlawed in Lawrenceville. So has the white bread and paper boxes this establishment used to serve. But I think you’ll just love what we have to offer.” He smiled and he rocked back and forth on his heels. “Change can be a good thing.”

I tossed the menu at the prick and walked out.

We ducked into Central Station on 50th. Sarah, bathed in reddish-yellow bar lighting, was sitting sideways in the booth with her feet on the pleather cushion, her face between her knees. The table was filled with empty pint and shot glasses. We knew better than to stick around, but it was Drag Night and we wanted to catch the show so we could have a fix of normalcy after a weird day.

“Oh no,” she mumbled, before leaning forward and yelling. “Oh no!”

I lifted my head from the sticky table and left a few hairs behind in the process. “What is it?”

She pointed towards the floor and yelled, “Crocs!”

There they were, in any color you could imagine. Topped off by scrubs or jeans and a v-neck sweater. Hospital gear.

We could hear them talking.

“I’m so down with Lawrenceville!” a woman’s voice squealed. “Isn’t it so much fun to get off the beaten path and find the culture?”

“I know,” a man replied. “It’s like we found our own little paradise.”

The bartender rang a bell and announced the drink specials had ended.

*****

With nowhere else to go we travelled further down Butler Street towards home. I kicked over a trashcan with nothing in it. Sarah walked slowly like a sad Charlie Brown.

“How can they claim this as their own?” she drunkenly sobbed and then pointed to her chest as she said, “This is my place.”

“Not anymore,” I told her. “The writing’s on the wall.”

She stopped and began sobbing. She could barely breathe because her chin was still stuck in her chest like an arrow through the heart, so she sucked in a short snort every so often.

I got down on one knee and looked up into her eyes. “How about we have one last night of good times while we’re here?”

She sniffed and asked in a cracked whisper, “How?”

Being from the South, Billy was a fried foot nut. He even had his own deep fryer, this five gallon monstrosity you just dropped a bird into and it would fry right up. He had bought gallons of oil and they sat in the kitchen under the sink. Billy was in his room and the house smelled like weed, so I knew better than to bother him. Instead we took the steel bucket out, set it atop the propane burner and started dumping oil in. Sarah was laughing now as she drenched the bird in eggs and bread crumbs. She ran over and wiped her fingertips off on my shirt as I kissed her forehead. Her hair smelled like olive oil, even though we were using peanut oil.

“Fuck Chucky’s” I said.

“Yeah, fuck Chucky’s,” she fired right back.

This was my first time working the deep fryer and I really should have asked Billy. Apparently you can’t drop a frozen chicken into hot oil. I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it caused a fireball to blaze out and envelop the entire kitchen. Because the rowhouses were so close to each other, it wasn’t long before our place and everyone else’s went up in smoke.

The next day there were rats crawling out of the cracks in the debris. We walked around in a grey cloud and noticed the streets were clear and the people were dirty. There was already graffiti on the few walls that were left standing that said “I (heart) LV”.  Small children played in the soot. The adults marveled at how there were no casualties and thanked the Lord someone had parked in Mr. Gardner’s handicap space, forcing him to spend the night at his daughter’s house on 57th. He never would have made it out in time.

With nowhere else to go we headed for the Full Moon, which was on the opposite side of Butler Street and suffered little damage. We were greeted by drag queen Priscilla and found a couple of seats between a shirtless man with black fingertips and a stocky woman wearing a baseball hat and Penguins hockey sweater.

When our drinks arrived, Sarah looked up at me and we clinked our glasses together in celebration.

“Red Blades”

by Jennifer Porter

The day after first grade ended, my mother sent me to live with my grandfather. She was afraid I’d burst out again and have to ride in an ambulance. I wrecked up the teacher’s picture board, or so my Dad said, by pulling all the drawings down, ripping them to shreds then breaking the crayons into little bits. What I do remember is Mrs. Cherry telling me she was sure my mother didn’t look like a big red scribbled mess with fire flaming like jagged blades out of her mouth. But what did Mrs. Cherry know?

Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to go. Having a fire-breathing dragon mother and a sloppy father wedded to a six-pack caused a lot of internal injuries that have never really healed. I carry them around with me like warts and hairy moles. Besides, Grandpa and me had always been tight. He felt bad that I was just like him when he was little.

It was Grandpa who slept in the sticky stiff hospital chair with his jungle-rotted feet up on the end of my hospital bed. Whenever I fought the restraints the mattress made a crinkly sound that stood the hairs on the back of my neck and Grandpa would wake up and say, “The faster you calm down, the faster we can go home.”

On the fourth day at the hospital, Grandpa yelled at the doctor that it was all the goddamn vaccines they gave me that made me act out. The doctor said, while some children respond negatively to certain vaccines, he didn’t think that was what was wrong with me. Severe stress can cause a psychotic break in children, believe it or not. Grandpa believed it. He was always open to unconventional ideas. Plus, he knew the two stressors in my life and he agreed that one of them did seem to have jagged red blades flying out of her mouth. Why, they’d been thrown at him; he had the blisters to prove it. There’s not a lot we can do about the parents we get, he said to me, other than avoid them as much as possible.

So I stayed with Grandpa and his boxer dog, Otis, at Grandpa’s apartment above the workshop. Grandpa’s Dad built the apartment so he could take care of Grandpa, his son. Great-Grandpa Tom and his third wife Wanda lived in the house up “front” and Grandpa lived in the “back.” Then Great-Grandpa died from mad cow disease. They had to take Great-Grandpa’s brain out and check to see if he had the familial form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease because that meant Grandpa and me could inherit it. But all they found was they didn’t think he’d eaten any bad beef and Grandpa and me were safe again to donate blood to the Red Cross.

When we got to the funeral home though, Grandpa didn’t believe that was his father in the coffin – he looked so different. But that’s what happens when you remove someone’s brain, said the funeral director. We can’t always put everybody back together the way God built them in the first place.

I mostly liked it at Grandpa’s. Grandpa fixed lawn maintenance equipment for cash in his workshop while he smoked funny smelling cigarettes and sang along to the classic rock radio station and sometimes he let me tool retrieve. But sometimes, Grandpa worried me. He got debilitating headaches and creepy itchy rashes. When the chemtrails soaked into his skin, his face blew up like a blowfish and he’d take half a bottle of Benadryl and sleep for two, three days at a time. Or, he’d be up all night doing important research on the Internet about how the aliens were boring underground tunnels deep in the earth, and that there was a secret colony on the moon for rich people and how President Obama and President Bush were both in the Illuminati. He took more pills than I did.

It was okay; life was okay I guess. It was better than back at the lair. Way better. I could go up “front” and visit Wanda. She baked a lot of cookies and missed Great-Grandpa. When she was just a girl, she came up to Michigan to work in an auto factory and that’s what she did too, her whole entire life. I could eat all the cookies I wanted at her house and watch cartoons and she never reminded me of all the bad things I did at home, like hit my little sister with the wiffle bat, stab pencil holes in my mother’s car seats, pitch rocks at the garage doors.

But one day, Grandpa’s pill box from the Veteran’s Administration didn’t come on time. He was stomping home from the mailbox when Wanda’s garage door churned open. I was already by the workshop throwing sticks for Otis that he watched fly over his head. It worried me that Otis wouldn’t fetch. Otis was lucky that Grandpa adopted him from the animal prison. Otis was mostly a bad dog, but not like a dog that would hurt you. He came when he wanted to. He sat down when you had a treat. He peed though in the apartment sometimes in one spot just inside the door and Grandpa always yelled at him about why couldn’t he wait until he got outside. I think Otis had it pretty rough before he got to Grandpa’s. It’s hard to learn how to be good when what’s happening around you boils your insides.

Wanda hobbled outside beneath the garage door, her poofy stiff vanilla hair gleaming in the sunshine. She wore a pale pink sweatsuit and she shrank as she got closer. Grandpa was going on by her, so she shouted, “Thomas! Thomas! I need to speak to you,” in her pale Southern granny voice.

Grandpa stopped, took his John Deere cap off, unrolled his sleeve then swept the fabric covered arm across his sweaty forehead. Grandpa’s forehead grew taller every year. He smacked his hat against his jeans then punched it back out into a turtle shape. He put it back on his head, adjusting it for maximum comfort, then said, “What is it, Wanda?”

“I need to talk to you about something,” Wanda said. She stood in the middle of the driveway looking like she might fall flat on her face at any moment.

Grandpa turned and approached her. He leaned back while he walked as if he’d been partially uprooted in a terrific summer storm. “I heard you the first time.”

“Hunter,” Wanda yelled to me. “I made cookies. Why don’t you go in the house and have some. I made your favorite kind.” I couldn’t do this unless Grandpa said it was all right to go in the devil’s den.

“I know it was hard on you, losing your father,” Wanda said, “but it’s been a good while now.”

“Just a couple of years.” Grandpa stared down at Wanda through his Ray-Bans.

She nodded.  “Your father left me nothing but bills to pay and I don’t get his social security anymore. It’s not been easy.”

“What’s the problem, Wanda? Spit it out.” Grandpa crossed his arms over his chest.

“Well, I just don’t know what to do about it anymore. The electricity bill was three hundred dollars last month. I pay your internet too and you’re just using it to read about all that crazy stuff. I’ve been more than patient with you.”

“You know I’d give you money, if I had any. I’m doing my best here.”

“I see your blinds closed in the middle of the day. Sometimes they are closed for three days.”

“I’ve explained this to you before.” Grandpa spoke as if she were a child. “I have serious medical problems. See, look at my arms,” he showed her the red bumpy rash on the back of his forearms. “This is why I have to go down to the VA hospital all the time.” Grandpa’s arms were on the move now, helping him talk. “You’ve seen my face when the chemtrails are thick. I can’t go anywhere, see anyone, hell even my eyelids swell shut.”

“If you can’t pay rent, you can’t live here anymore.”

“Wanda, you know that I cannot pay you rent. I don’t have a job. I’ve been telling you this for two years.”

“You haven’t had a job in ten years. Your father took care of you and now I have to.”

“I’ve filled out hundreds of applications. Nobody wants to hire a fifty-three year old man and I’m too old to go to college.”

“Dwayne says you could get disability.” Dwayne was Wanda’s oldest son, down in Tennessee. He went by the name of John and got real mad if you called him Dwayne since it was his father’s name. He didn’t like dogs.

“Disability?” Grandpa was so insulted he pulled his face away from her and stared into the distance. “Who takes out the garbage every week?”

“Why you do,” she said.

“And who shovels the snow and cuts the grass and plants all your goddamn annuals?”

“You do.”

“Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Wanda’s face crumpled. “You have got to stand on your own two feet,” she shouted.

Otis and I made a run for our tree branch fort.

“I’d do just that, Wanda, if somebody would give me a fuckin’ job,” Grandpa shouted louder.

“Dwayne’s comin’ up here for Fourth of July, and he’s sick and tired of your excuses.”

“Jesus Christ, Wanda!”

“You have got to start paying me rent or …”

“Or what?”

“You’ll answer to Dwayne!”

I covered my ears and smashed my face into Otis’s furry soft shoulder. I took my hands down and the red blades were still flying.  “Stay, Otis.” I gripped his collar.

“Dwayne ain’t afraid of you, Thomas. He ain’t afraid to set things right.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You’ve got to take care of yourself! Pay your bills! Or you’re gonna have to move out.”

 “What about Hunter? Where’s he gonna live? He’s gotta be in a calm environment, Wanda, I told you that. What about my workshop? How am I supposed to move all those tools? Jesus Christ, Wanda!”

And then the screaming just stopped and that meant Wanda went back inside with the peanut butter cookies and Grandpa was storming up the driveway.

***

Grandpa yelled for me to get my ass in there and get my shoes on and make sure I go pee, we were going out. He stomped outside to get Ole Betsy running. Ole Betsy was Grandpa’s mostly broke-down, dirty red Chevy Geo. She was named after Betsy Ross, the lady who sewed the American flag and tried to warn everyone that the Illuminati had taken over George Washington. She found out about Washington when he asked her to sew the flag. The flag’s red stripes covered Betsy’s warning messages embroidered on the white cloth. She knew one day the stitches would wear out and the truth would be known.

We drove over to Grandpa’s brother’s house. It had two floors and somebody glued fake flat rocks on the front, all around the door. Maybe they wanted to feel like they lived in a cave. We had to go real slow down their dirt road, sharply turning this way and that, trying not to put Ole Betsy through the most giant of the craters. In some spots, the road bumps were so tight together that my teeth clattered and all Grandpa’s screwdrivers and ratchets shook off the dashboard. Grandpa said, “Goddammit. Hunter, put those back for me.”

Grandpa’s brother was a goddamn right-wing Republican. Uncle Joe went to church with his wife and kids after he snuck into his garage and smoked a funny cigarette. Grandpa’s brother sometimes yelled at Grandpa that he was a goddamned communist.  Grandpa believed that families should share everything: money, cars, houses, tools, pills, funny cigarettes.

Uncle Joe was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. He didn’t look up at us; he kept on reading. “How ya doin’, Hunter? How’s Otis?”

I never once answered Uncle Joe, but he asked me every single time. Whenever a real grown-up talked to me my words glued together in the back of my throat, choking me. I nodded instead.

Grandpa shifted his jeans around by tugging on his belt, adjusting them for maximum comfort. “What are you doing home?”

“Just stopped by,” Uncle Joe said.

“Thought you’d be out working,” Grandpa said.  Joe owned a landscape maintenance company, but he wouldn’t hire Grandpa. Grandpa was too slow. And always late to work. And needed time off when he was a blowfish.

Uncle Joe rolled a funny cigarette.

Grandpa couldn’t stop moving, pacing around. “Did you read in the paper about the TSA down there in Tennessee pulling semis over?”

Joe took a long puff. He wore a navy blue t-shirt with MICHIGAN in yellow across the chest. He looked like a skinny version of Grandpa, same blond hair, big eyes and round glasses, but with a mustache and not a beard. “Oh, come on. Why would they do that?” He passed the cigarette to Grandpa.

Grandpa puffed on the cigarette and passed it back. They did this over and over until the funny cigarette was all smoked up.  “The Patriot Act.” Grandpa threw his arms into the air. “You think the government has to have probable cause anymore? No. Oh, no.”

“That’s just because of 911.” Joe leaned way back in his chair, the front legs off the floor.

 “The TSA is pulling people over on the highways and searching their vehicles.  Viper operations. Telling everyone it’s to fight terrorism but you know what they’re really looking for?”

“No, what?  Exotic pets?” Joe laughed.

“Drugs. Jesus, Joe, they’re looking to arrest you just for having some dope in your car. They’re using the Patriot Act against regular Americans. Next thing is martial law, I’m telling you.” Grandpa’s arms moved all over and he paced in shorter paths now. Every time Grandpa said something he said it louder and louder.

“Yeah, well Obamacare is gonna bankrupt the entire fucking country, anyway.” Joe stood up. “Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security! Everybody thinks they’re entitled.”

“Yeah, and I suppose they should close all the VA hospitals too. Support our troops, right.”

“You expect me to pay more taxes so all the lazy assholes who claim they can’t find a job can get health insurance?”

“You know how many applications I’ve filled out? Hundreds! And you can’t talk to anyone anymore. It’s all online. You do one of those goddamn personality tests and then talk to me about finding a job. My own brother won’t give me a job.” He took off his baseball cap and shaking a little, grabbed a paper towel, got it wet under the faucet then wiped his whole head. He fumbled around looking for the trash can, even though we were at Joe’s house all the time and he had used it many times before.

“What happened at that interview with the grass cutting company?” Joe stubbed the funny cigarette out in the sink then washed away the ashes. He opened the sliding door and waved the smell outside with his lawn maintenance hat.

“I thought it went well. He asked a lot of stupid questions. Like, where do you see yourself in five years? You know what I told him. Retired! That’s where I want to be in five years.” Grandpa laughed.

“What the hell did you say that for?” Joe slammed the door shut and put on his hat.

“Because it’s the truth. I’m telling you, Joe, it’s all gonna be over soon anyway. Did you hear about the USS Enterprise? They’re going to dismantle it and sink it so Israel can secretly bomb it and blame Iran.”

“Did you call that big national company that just opened up a branch in Pontiac?”

“Wanda bitched me out this morning,” Grandpa said. “Dwayne’s coming up here for the Fourth. Gonna kick me and Hunter out if I don’t pay rent.”

“So? Pay rent.” Uncle Joe got two cans of Vernor’s out of the fridge, opened them and handed one to me. We waited for the fizz to die down before we took a sip.

“I need a job, Joe.”

“I thought you said a long time ago that Bernie would let you work at the donut shop.” Bernie was Grandpa’s friend from high school and he owned a donut shop on Dixie Highway. Bernie made the best donuts ever.

I looked out the sliding door. I thought I should go outside and throw rocks into Uncle Joe’s pond.

“Wash dishes? All my experience running lawn crews and you want me to wash dishes? You think we can live on minimum wage? Nobody can live on minimum wage,” Grandpa broke apart all the syllables in minimum when he said it the second time.

 “I gave you a fucking job and you couldn’t keep it. Goddamnit, Tom. Half the time you didn’t even show up. One excuse after the other.” I opened the slider and slipped out. “And when you did show up, you lost me money. You think I work my ass off every day to lose money?”

“I have a condition. What’s it take around here to get a little compassion.”

I raced down the deck stairs. I forgot to close the slider.

“Go on disability then. Don’t be asking me to loan you any more money either.”

There was no breeze in the air. Grandpa and Joe sounded like cicadas, their shrill buzz piercing right into me. The doctor told me to get away from the red blades whenever I could if the grown-ups couldn’t see them slicing into me, ripping at my heart until I wanted to explode.

I searched for perfectly flat, round stones to skip across the pond. I was trying to beat my record of six skips in a row. But I kept getting only one skip.

And then Grandpa’s brother walked out of the house. He hopped into his pickup truck and didn’t even say good-bye. He just shook his head and peeled out of his driveway. The door slammed again.

“Hunter!” Grandpa yelled. He stood there, my pop in his hand.

***

“Hunter! You wanna go get a donut?” Grandpa shouted from the workshop door. This was good news. Grandpa had finally come around.

He’d been on his computer non-stop for a couple of days and the alien glow made it hard to fall asleep on the couch at night.  Plus Grandpa always talked back to the Internet, telling it what he thought. Or he talked loud on his cell telling everyone else what he thought about what he read on the Internet. He said he was just hiding in the air conditioning, but it was the third of July and Grandpa hadn’t taken a job or borrowed any money. When Grandpa read the questions on the disability forms, he stood up and ripped the sheets into tiny shreds, his face all puffed up and red.

Going to the donut shop would turn everything around, so Otis and I rushed out of our tree branch fort and took a pee on a tree on the way. Sometimes soldiers have to do that.

Grandpa was a soldier once, a long time ago. He quit high school and joined the Marines and was over in the Philippines where he found out some people actually eat puppies and jungle rot is something a soldier gets when his boots stay wet. Jungle rot can cripple a soldier but it is always good to stay in the infirmary. The Marines taught Grandpa that he didn’t make enough to pay the price for breaking all their rules. Grandpa ran away from the Marines, and when the government wrote his mother a letter telling her she’d be in serious trouble for harboring a fugitive, he turned himself in. Grandpa loved his mother more than anyone in the entire world. Grandpa told the Marines they’d be much safer without him, and they agreed.

Grandpa’s mother was the kind of woman that rocked crying puppies to sleep in the middle of the night. When she died, her husband, Great-Grandpa Tom, rented two huge dumpsters and had his Mexican lawn cutters empty her house before she was even buried. Her whole life and Grandpa’s childhood and his brothers and sisters childhoods all flung over the eight foot high metal sides of two filthy boxes. Then he kicked out any of his kids that still lived there and sold the house and furnishings to get a new wife.

At Bernie’s Donut Shop, we sat at the counter on red cushioned circle stumps that twisted when I moved my butt back and forth. It smelled bad, like coffee but also smelled good, like donuts. Bernie had on his white stained donut maker apron that went nearly to his knees that he bowtied on top of his double basketball stomach. Bernie’s eyes twinkled and he laughed a lot. Grandpa said he lived at the North Pole at Christmastime. But Bernie was always at his shop, putting the right color sprinkle for the right holiday on his donuts.

“Just the kid will have a donut,” said Grandpa.

“The usual, Hunter?” Bernie asked. He never bothered Grandpa about the fact that Grandpa wouldn’t eat one of his donuts or drink his coffee or have a muffin. That’s what a good friend is like. They just let each other be.

I ran over to the glass case and checked out my options. Maybe this time I wouldn’t have the usual. “Show him what you want, Hunter,” said Grandpa so I pointed at the light brown donut with the chocolate frosting and Fourth of July sprinkles. Bernie grabbed it with a piece of tracing paper and put it on a plate.

“One usual.” Bernie set the plate down for me. “So, what are you guys up to today?” Bernie got me a glass of milk.

I wanted to tell Bernie that Grandpa was taking the dish washing job to fix all our problems. But I felt so shy then, I couldn’t answer. My throat got clogged with my thoughts and feelings and I couldn’t find the right words to express myself. I saw everything in pictures but no matter how hard I tried, my drawings never matched what I pictured in my mind. I sat there and pictured red blades flying out of an army of mouths and catching my clothes on fire. I saw price stickers on all of Grandpa’s tools at Wanda’s garage sale. I saw Otis with his nose between his paws, whimpering on the cold concrete floor of an animal prison cell. I took a drink of milk and tiny bites of my doughnut. I tried to guess what flavor sprinkle was on my tongue then stuck out my tongue to see if I was right.

“Oh, that dipshit Dwayne is supposed to get here tomorrow. Wanda says he’s gonna kick us out if I don’t pay rent,” Grandpa said.

“Whatcha gonna do?” Bernie asked. He leaned back from the counter and rested his thick arms over the top hump of his belly.

Bernie and I waited. Grandpa took off his Detroit Tigers ball cap, wiped his forehead with a paper napkin, smacked the cap then punched it back out. He settled the cap on his head. Grandpa cleared his throat like something was stuck down there. I sat my donut down, waiting for the good news.

“Shit, I don’t know. We can’t live on minimum wage, you know?”

“Well, it’d be a start. We’d see how you do and you know I need someone I can trust to run the shop. I haven’t gone on vacation in years.”

 “I know.”

“There is an opportunity for advancement. But, you’d have to be here every day, on time, no screwing around, even when the chemtrails are nasty. I’d be counting on you.”

Grandpa looked down at the counter, at the swinging kitchen doors, at the restrooms tucked in the corner. He spun his stool and stared out the window at the cars whizzing by on Dixie Highway. “I appreciate it, Bernie, I do.”

“We’ve been friends a long time.”

“Yep.” Grandpa stepped off his stool. “Finished yet, Hunter?” I wasn’t, but I didn’t want the donut any longer. “I’ll get back with you on it, Bernie.” Grandpa pulled out his wallet and handed Bernie some dollar bills.

Bernie waddled to the cash register in step with Grandpa heading to the door. He shook his head with a frown on his face and banged the register open. “I can’t keep the position open forever.”

“Yeah, I know,” Grandpa said. “Come on, Hunter!”

“Bye, kid,” Bernie said. “Be good.”

I watched my feet as I walked to Ole Betsy. Grandpa placed his hand on top of my head to guide me because I refused to look at him or to see if any cars were coming. I knew the red blades were going to burn everything down tomorrow.

***

The next morning, Grandpa was still in bed, his face swollen. One cheek was a bigger golf ball than the other one. His eyelids looked like mini water balloons, and he had another golf ball on the left side of his chin. He’d swallowed an entire bottle of Benadryl last night when he just couldn’t take it anymore.

John Dwayne pulled up in his car while Otis and I were in the tree branch fort. Otis heard Wanda make a fuss all over him, so he ran over to ask for a cookie. Wanda yelled at Otis to go home. I waited till they went inside the garage then I sprang into action and grabbed Otis by the collar.

We tried to wake up Grandpa. Otis slobbered all over his face, licking his chemtrail reaction and I shook his arm and then his head and then his feet and then punched him in the back and then the arm again until it became lunchtime. It was almost as if Grandpa was dead, but he moaned now and again and when I laid my ear on his chest, I heard thumping.

Otis and I shared an MRE. MRE’s are the soldier’s ready to eat meals. They are in puke brown bags and come in all different kinds. Grandpa didn’t eat any food he didn’t prepare himself, unless it came out of an MRE. He had a stockpile of MRE’s that we were only supposed to eat in emergencies. My favorite was the spaghetti with meat sauce and Grandpa always ate the vegetarian cheese tortellini since no one really knew where the government got the meat from. It could be horse, for all we knew. Otis and I ate one spaghetti with meat balls and one marble pound cake dessert. I spilled most of the pink lemonade powder mix into my canteen and Otis licked the rest off the kitchen counter. I screwed the top back on then shook my canteen over and over. My canteen had a camo cover.

Otis barked and I dropped my canteen and some spilled and he quick slopped up the spill before he bounded over to the door and growled. Someone was coming.

I had forgotten to close the living room blinds like Grandpa did to tell Wanda no one was available to take her call at that time, so I rushed over, looked out and there was John Dwayne in the driveway. I yanked on the blinds cord but I could never do it right and the blinds started to be lopsided and then I had to let go then yank then let go then pull and guide gently. I saw John Dwayne staring up at me, his hand in a salute against his forehead, blocking the sun. The blinds swished closed. Maybe he got the hint.

John Dwayne banged on the door and Otis barked.

“Grandpa!” I yelled right into his closest ear.

“Hhhhmmmm,” Grandpa said but he rolled over onto his side and covered that ear with his arm. The banging and barking got louder and louder.

I punched Grandpa’s back, his head, his shoulder. “Grandpa! John Dwayne is here! Grandpa! Get up! Grandpa, you have to get up! Please!” Grandpa lifted his elbow a couple of inches then let it fall flat against his face.

“Open the door. I have to speak to your Grandpa,” yelled John Dwayne. “I don’t have all goddamn day.”

“Grandpa! You have to get up! I’m supposed to be in a calm environment, remember?”

Otis growled at the door. A bitter and slimy substance pooled in my mouth at the thought of speaking to John Dwayne.

“Hunter! I saw you in the window. Put that dog in his crate and open the door.”

I ran and threw up in the kitchen sink. Otis nuzzled my hand. I ran water all over my face and let it flow over the top of my head then I wiped off with paper towels.

“Open the door!” John Dwayne banged harder.

I took a good swig from my canteen. The lemonade felt like a popsicle on strep throat. “Come on, Otis, I need you to go in your crate.” To my surprise, Otis trotted to his crate, opened the door wider with his nose, and got in. “Good boy,” I told him as I slid the door latch.

The red blades were on the other side of the door, wanting to burn everything. Me and Grandpa and Otis and the workshop and the tree branch fort. I didn’t want to get singed but I didn’t want to go back to my mother’s. Yeah, Grandpa was whacky but he loved me in a way that kept my guts from churning, and I was scared that the next time I broke I’d be like Humpty Dumpty, my pieces scattered and not even Grandpa able to figure out how they went back together.

John Dwayne would not quit banging on the door.

My hand shook as I took the doorchain off then slowly moved my hand lower and flipped open the deadbolt then slowly down lower and turned the lock button on the door knob. I took a deep breath. I hoped I puked out all the glue that was in my throat, so I opened the door.

“ ‘Bout time,” said John Dwayne. He had long greasy salt and pepper hair and matching chin stubble and a cool metal belt buckle — a mud truck with big huge wheels.

I gripped my throat and whispered, “My grandpa’s sick today.”

“Bullshit,” said John Dwayne. “He ain’t sick except in the head. Things’ve got to change around here.”

I started hoarsely rambling one word sentences. Otis. Tree. Fort. Tools. Donuts. Dragon. Calm. John Dwayne looked at me like I was the crazy one.

“Tom! Where you at? Let me by you, Hunter, stop it now. What are you talking about? Stop gettin’ all worked up.”

I held out my hands. This was my big moment. I could remain an innocent child, helpless in the face of my perilous predicament or I could take it upon myself to decide my fate. “His … face … is … all … swollen. Go and see for yourself.” The last words rushed out of my mouth so easily I was surprised and then pleased.

John Dwayne pushed past me and entered Grandpa’s bedroom.

I pulled Grandpa over, his pink marshmallow face pointing at the ceiling.

“Holy shit!” said John Dwayne. “What the hell happened?”

“The chemtrails … were … real thick yesterday.” Talking was getting easier.

“Tom! Tom! Hey it’s me, John. Can ya hear me?”

“He took a whole bottle of Benadryl. He’s not going to wake up,” I said.

“I’ll be,” he said, shaking his head, awestruck at the sight Grandpa made. “Momma didn’t tell me about this.”

“She knows though. It happens all the time. Plus, he gets pussy bumps all over his arms. Wanna see?” And I showed John Dwayne the grossness on Grandpa’s arms.

John Dwayne stared at Grandpa for a long time. Then he looked at me, “Holdin’ down the fort, huh? All by yourself?”

I nodded.

“Did I ever tell ya that my Daddy was a no good drunk and my Momma had to work her ass off just to feed us three boys, far away from all her family?”

“No. Did I ever tell you my Dad’s the same way and that I can’t live with my Mom. She can’t make a calm environment and I don’t wanna break apart, ever again.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to either. Break apart that is. I think I heard somethin’ ‘bout that. Somethin’ ‘bout you going berserk in class.”

“I rode in an ambulance.”

“Cool.”

“I like your belt buckle.”

“Thanks.” He looked down at it and we mutually admired it for a moment.

“John?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you gonna kick us out?”

“Well, you remind me of me when I was ‘bout your age. Holding down the fort.” He smiled at me. “Momma baked cookies, want some?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Naw, I’m not gonna kick you out, but your Grandpa ought to go on disability. Pay Momma some rent every now and again. Tell him to come talk to me when he gets up.”

“Okay. What kind of cookies?”

“She says they’re your favorite.”

***

I wish I could tell you that all our problems were solved that day, but life doesn’t quite work that way. The next time I saw Uncle Joe though, I could talk to him much to his bemused surprise. John and Wanda had me and Otis over on the Fourth for hotdogs, strawberry shortcake and sparklers and Grandpa slept straight through the entire weekend.  I wish I could say that the red blades quit bothering me that day, but that wouldn’t be truthful either. What I can say is, I’m still working on it and I can draw a whole lot better.

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