A short story by David Liebig | Illustrations by Bryce Snyder
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t seemed a manly thing to take his mother shopping.
He drove the car. Pushed the cart. Carried the bags — “I’ve got it” — and relished in the muted ache they added to his arms and shoulders. It felt like lifting weights. Like getting stronger.
Julian liked the way his mom had asked for butter — “not that laboratory imitation crap” — and admired her deliberate, knowing process for selecting fruit. Each apple had to be groped, turned over and squinted at before landing in the cart. He entertained the notion of a man shopping for an engagement ring with similar devotion.
At the register, the checker asked if she’d like cash back.
“Um, no,” she said. And then: “Wait — yes, please. Ten.”
The checker, who seemed vaguely familiar to Julian, smiled and handed her a $10 bill that had a half-inch tear at one end.
“You’re going to be at the VanBrunts’ house all weekend?”
“Yes, Mom. You’ll be all right?”
“Yes, fine. That’s very nice,” she said. “What a nice boy I raised.”
She had MTV to thank for the raising, Julian thought. But now was not the time to say so.
“There was a card from your father in the mail.”
“My birthday was a week ago,” Julian said.
“Sometimes the mail comes late.” She handed him an envelope.
“Sometimes,” he said.
Inside the envelope, Julian found a corny Hallmark signed Dustin Lehman and $18 — a buck for every year of Julian’s life. It would have been a mild gesture. It would have almost been comforting. But Julian had failed to overlook the half-inch rip in one of the bills, treated with some Scotch tape.
Mr. and Mrs. VanBrunt’s house was on the other side of town. It sat nicely on Willow Lane, which had respectable homes with trim lawns and clean cars in smooth driveways all the way through. Julian’s dusty Honda rolled into the driveway marked 67 as the day was beginning its dramatic transition into night. Now that it was June, the sun had taken to getting stuck at what would have been an hour or so before dusk. It sat there haughtily, casting slanted, yellow light for an unnatural period of time. Everything turned to gold in this false twilight, and on an American street like Willow Lane, one got the impression that things just might be all right.
Julian got out of the car, plucked the hide-a-key from under the doormat and let himself into the house that was his for the next couple days. A funny mix of duty and excitement had fallen on the young man when Mr. VanBrunt asked him to watch the house while he and his wife left town to attend their son’s wedding. But now it was freedom Julian felt, almost entitlement.
Julian moved through the entryway, passed the veering staircase that led to an upper floor — the guestroom, some bathrooms, the master bedroom — and entered Mr. VanBrunt’s study. In this room fashioned with bookshelves, a dense wooden desk and two high-backed chairs, Julian and Mr. VanBrunt had their talks.
The first of these had taken place more than a year ago. Mr. VanBrunt invited Julian (a student in his English class at the time) to dinner at his house out of (Julian decided) an effort to fill the gap made when his own son grew up and left home. Julian frequented the VanBrunts’ after that. He didn’t particularly admire the man; the old guy was just always there. And he was good to talk to. He had been a successful writer once. Julian wondered why he bothered teaching at the local high school.
Julian made his way around the self-assertive desk and sat in the thronelike seat behind it.
No matter what you do, Jay, don’t try to save the world.
Snippets of wisdom from their one-on-one chats occasionally occurred to Julian. This one was from the night of Julian’s graduation, for which the VanBrunts had hosted a get-together. Most of the guests had taken off. Julian’s mom offered to help Mrs. VanBrunt clean up, and Mr. VanBrunt summoned Julian to the study.
“Pioneers born in pioneered lands. Soldiers with no war. You kids canoodle yourselves and call it love,” Mr. VanBrunt had said.
“It’s not all your fault though,” he went on. “The people in charge aren’t doing such a sexy job either. Picking fights to keep the peace? Spending money to get out of debt? I never voted for that. That’s not why I went to Vietnam.”
Dan VanBrunt settled into an uncomfortable pause, as if holding back a burp. Julian thought maybe he’d had one celebratory Scotch too many by the glassy look in his eyes.
Finally, he said, “No matter what you do, Jay, don’t try to save the world.” His eyes, suddenly entirely sober, took aim at Julian. “It won’t return the favor.”
Alone behind the great desk, Julian pulled open its main drawer. There sat a faded photograph of Mr. VanBrunt in uniform and a pack of American Spirits.
Julian had always taken him for a Marlboro man.
He pulled one of the cigarettes from the pack, deposited it in his shirt pocket and left the room.
The $18 Julian received for his birthday afforded him two bottles of wine. He bought them from Indian Jones, the only person in town who sold to minors. Indian Jones ran a convenience store downtown. The local kids had given him this nickname for lack of creativity as well as acquaintance with brown-skinned peoples. He might very well have been Arab.
Indian Jones had about seven stringy, white hairs on his head that always appeared diligently greased back. He spoke as much English as he needed to run the store and came off good-natured if not a little drunk at times. When young people approached his register with alcohol, he asked for ID, and after holding the card close to his face for a minute of apparent scrutiny, he smiled and nodded and processed the purchase regardless of the customer’s age. Indian Jones was either very bad at math or very good at not caring.
By the time Julian was back on Willow Lane with the bottles of red riding in the backseat, the shine strewn by the sun had thinned like a melting snowfall. But it was light enough still to see the girl at the VanBrunts’ door.
She was sitting cross-legged, wearing a turquoise shirt and jeans. After Julian pulled into the driveway and killed the engine, he could see that it was Alex.
Julian drew the cigarette from his shirt pocket and hung it on his bottom lip. He figured he’d go into this one guns out. With the lighter from the dash, he lit the cig and took a draw so deep the cherry crackled faintly. It wasn’t a Marlboro, but he was sure as hell going to smoke it like one. Julian freed the first of three buttons at the neck of his polo and stepped out of the car.
He took his time walking over.
“Look what the mailman left me,” he said.
Alex smiled — a patient smile. Her soft face struck Julian as somehow European.
“You smoke?” she asked.
Julian looked at the smoldering thing in his hand.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Heard you had the house and thought I’d walk down for the party.” Alex lived in the neighborhood, a few blocks off of Willow.
“You’re a little early,” Julian said. He sucked down some smoke, blew it out.
She shrugged and said nothing.
Julian looked down the street.
“You wanna go for a drive or something?” he asked.
She smiled, faster this time, and Julian saw it — the thing that could scare the dip-spittin’ Eastwood out of any man fasterthanyoucansay, “Draw, punk.”
In her, he saw a cavernous want.
“Sure, Jules,” she said.
Julian dropped the cig on the VanBrunts’ lawn and crushed it with his foot.
The area surrounding Willow Lane was a winding labyrinth of residential streets. In the direction Julian drove, the houses became more impressive, acquiring rotundas and columns, landscaped exteriors.
“It’s so nice knowing we have a party to go to,” Alex said. “Aren’t things just better when you have somewhere to be?”
The car was flooded with her perfume’s purplish smell. It was making him queasy.
Don’t mistake happiness for an upset stomach, Mr. VanBrunt said in the back of his mind.
“Yes,” he answered.
Her head was turned to the houses floating by outside when she said, “Now that we’ve graduated, what do you plan on doing with yourself, Jules?”
“I think I’d like to be a writer,” he said.
“Oh, that’s right. Personally, I don’t know why you’d gamble your potential on such a shell game.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You remember meeting my dad at graduation,” she told him. “He said he could see you at a company.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And maybe somewhere down the road you could be working at his company.”
“Yeah. It’s what I’ll probably end up doing.”
“You think so?”
“I don’t know.”
She didn’t speak for several moments after that, and Julian wondered where her mind went. He suspected she was assessing the situation: curious of how they looked together, speculating on whether or not they would hangout again, questioning if she could ever be with Julian. He asked himself these things. He didn’t see why not.
Alex took a slow breath and watched the houses float along without seeing them. A small yellow blur flew by as well.
Why is he being so quiet? she thought. He probably just wants to do it. This is nice. I can’t say I wouldn’t.
She imagined what sex with Jules would be like, becoming awkwardly aware of her lap. She wondered if it would happen that night.
Julian punched on the radio to fill the silence. Bob Dylan seeped out of the speakers:
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
“How about some wine?” Julian asked.
“In the backseat.”
“You’ve been holding out on me,” Alex said. She reached around her seat and grabbed one of the bottles. It had a plastic cap. She unscrewed it and drank a mouthful before holding the uncapped bottle out to Julian.
“I probably shouldn’t,” he said.
“And I thought you were a real man.”
Julian’s eye gave a twitch. He reached across the car and took the bottle from Alex. He brought it to his mouth and raised the bottom high, keeping one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road. He handed the bottle back to Alex with a quarter of its contents gone.
“I thought right,” she said with that smile.
“Who the hell lives here?” Julian said, wagging his hand at the opulent houses now draped in night.
“I wonder,” Alex said. She took a pull. “What do they do for a living?”
“Do they cheat on their taxes?”
“Do they cheat on their wives?”
“Do they hire someone to mow their damn lawns?”
“Do they feel less American for it?”
Their only answer was the whiny, recorded voice on the radio swinging higher:
He woke up; the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of—
The deer was purple in the dark. The Honda’s headlights caught it, and it stood as stubborn as time, eyes lit and fixed as if witnessing a horror.
Julian heard Alex gasp. There was no time to brake. He jerked the wheel. A hand grabbed him. The car spun, and a cold, black feeling of no control took over.
In America, there is a bus. It is old and grand and sees the continental forty-eight in time. Not anyone can ride this bus. One must be deserving.
Alex dreamed about the bus. She’d seen what it was like onboard. There were no seats. The people stood. Everyone was eloquently dressed. Dramatic chandeliers — glowing explosions of glass, frozen in time — hung from the ceiling. A pleasant hum of conversation rose and fell and rose and fell. And everything was steeped in warm soft-focus. On the bus, the celebration never ended. On the bus, there were no worries.
She was there, on the bus, as Julian’s car spun out and her eyes closed. She had been waiting for the bus her whole life. She had made all her decisions based on bringing herself to it. She had obtained the right friends. Shied away from the right meals. Rehearsed the right sentences. Her manner was well constructed. And she was there, and everyone, in gowns and suits, was welcoming her kindly. Mom and Dad were there, and they were dancing like they used to. A band performed a flowing, orchestral rendition of “Simple Twist of Fate.” The tuxedoed musicians smiled and nodded at her as she listened to them play. It was the most precious thing she’d ever heard. Her face split open with a smile — the smile.
And when she closed her eyes and went there, Julian wasn’t only on the bus. He was driving it.
They didn’t speak on the ride back. The car had come to rest a few yards off of the road, nose-deep in someone’s crafted hedge, but they were unhurt.
Julian had seen teeth tossed across the asphalt. He had smelled blood. Heard bones crack. But none of these perceptions proved true when he opened his eyes. Still, something had broken.
Julian drove them back to Willow Lane, his body aching with embarrassment. Alex had acted relieved once she realized they were fine, but Julian could hardly look at her. He still caught waves of her sickly sweet perfume, but his shame had pushed her far away.
Julian remembered a time when his parents would fight. They went at it in the car sometimes, and as they lashed out back and forth with Julian in the backseat chewing on his lip, one would eventually say something so hurtful it shattered the momentum of the argument. All that remained was silence and pain.
Julian drove them back to Willow Lane, but all the while he was in the backseat.
Julian started hard on the wine when they got back. Before long, most of the two bottles was in him. He undid the second button to his collar. He had decided not to care that night. What was going to happen would happen.
It was night now — the gold was gone. And they began to come. Word of an empty house took to the town like fire to dry grass. Julian’s friends and friends’ friends knocked on the VanBrunts’ door, and Julian let them in. People paraded through the door holding polished smiles and bottles of their own, and Julian cared less and less. When a young-looking brunette bumped into him and flashed a threatening smile, he ceased to notice Alex staring from across the room with an expression like she’d missed a flight.
Julian heard Mr. VanBrunt’s voice: Life’s short. Eat dessert first.
That was one, wasn’t it?
Velo walked into the party around 11 p.m. It was no grand entrance. A polo-shirted guy offered him a grin. Another nodded. One brunette in a tangerine sundress threw her arms around him for a long, swaying embrace that could almost be called dancing.
“Where have you been?” she asked, still clinging.
Velo answered with as much genuine charm as has ever been packed into a two-syllable sentence: “Around,” he said.
Suddenly, Velo felt as if a cold breeze was blowing down his back.
“Oopsies,” the brunette said as she realized her drink was spilling on him. She gave an apologetic frown and went on to join a conversation about Taylor Swift several feet away. As she bounced off, Velo beheld her ass — twin grapefruits, ripe and proud, where the dress’ tail fell.
A large decorative mirror clung to the wall nearby, and in it the brunette caught Velo drinking in the sight of her behind with appraising — albeit appreciative — intent.
Oh well, she thought. I owe him that.
Velo pulled his gaze away and smiled thoughtfully over the people in the room. A chubby guy was flapping his arms to punctuate the story he was telling. Half a dozen others stood chin-in-hand to hear him out. A girl was sitting sidesaddle a guy on the couch. They were making out. Six or seven people crowded around the dining room table, pounding on it with fists as part of some frantic drinking game. Glasses on the table hummed and quivered each time hands hit lacquered wood.
The cocktail of voices and music that was 67 Willow Lane reached for the neighborhood’s outskirts. Rather than roar like a lioness, it fumed like a stricken dog. From the street, sloppy sounds meshed into one idiot symphony. The people inside passed windows that glowed in the night, and they could be seen as laughing or chanting or dancing. The way the indoor light touched them, they appeared like actors on a stage.
Someone was watching the production.
The house next door had a window, the blinds of which had been carefully adjusted to provide a partial yet unsympathetic view of the VanBrunts’ facade — without reciprocating the liberty.
Half doused in the synthetic glow of LED screens, his skin appeared bluish, translucent. He watched the scene below with measured half-interest, his semi-open eyes never straying too long from the feeds, the images, the all-encompassing wired machine. His given name had become only half-accurate, not accounting for lists of online identities. Aliases. Usernames. Monikers given to avatars. He was half of a person, existing in part on hard drives and servers throughout an impalpable realm.
He looked down at his neighbor’s house abuzz with life.
They don’t belong there, he thought.
He turned back to the screen and clicked his way through a demon-infested chamber. The walls of his bedroom faded away. The concept of his hands on the controls phased from thought. He was fully seduced, submitting to a world with but one limitation: its impossibility.
With utter urgency, a skinny kid pushed his red, plastic cup into Velo’s hand before leaning over the kitchen sink to vomit. The kid blundered down the hall. Velo sniffed at the brown liquid in the cup. Jack and Coke. He took a sip.
Velo leaned back against the wall. Now and then he’d pull gulps from the free drink and grit his teeth, not wondering how the skinny kid had reached such a sorry state. The cup was half empty. Half of what was left seemed to be whiskey. Who knows how many such concoctions the kid had had before “serving” one to Velo? Velo might have asked, if only Skinny hadn’t been in such a hurry.
Everyone is in a hurry, he thought.
Boys and girls rushed all about, balking and knocking into one another.
Velo knew them all — and knew them well. He even envisioned vague little episodes in his head involving them, imagining how this gal or that guy might act in such and such a situation. He felt like a Hollywood director sometimes, surrounded by the world’s largest movie set. Only, when Velo shouted directions, none of the actors or actresses heard him. They just kept balking and knocking into one another without the slightest break in character.
And that was fine. Velo was used to being largely ignored. He expected it. No one asked about his accent — they probably hadn’t heard of his home country anyway. He spoke five languages — but they wouldn’t understand any of them outside of English. Most of the people at the VanBrunts’ house that night knew Velo worked two jobs downtown (one waiting tables and one checking groceries) — but he hardly wanted to bore them with the story of his father having sold the family farm and dog (named Coco) in order to pack up and take to the states with nothing but $13 and the determination to put Velo through college.
They let Velo come to their parties, but they didn’t need a history lesson. Those were the rules of the game. Velo had been playing happily for years now.
He gulped his Jack and Coke, and gritted his teeth fiercely.
The half-person felt the blue flashes ricocheting outside before seeing them. It brought him back. The cavalry had arrived. He knew they would hate him for calling the cops if they ever found out who did it, but they were more worried about where the next party would be. He was safe. And he — whose father had a lisp and so in telling the kid to be “useful” had been misheard saying “youthful” — had done right again. Someone could have gotten hurt. Someone could have done something they’d regret.
He knew that to them he was half of a person.
But half of a person is more than a whole stolen self, he thought. Turning back to the screen, he practically evaporated. Within minutes, the cocktail of voices and music had done the same.
Julian woke up full of dread. He had not slept in the guest bed as he planned. He was in the master bedroom. The final button to his shirt had been loosed, but he didn’t remember doing it. A dripping suspicion opened up in him.
On the floor lay a crumpled orange dress. Julian looked across the bed and found the golden-brown body that belonged in it. Her back was up, and tiny shoulder blades screamed through the flesh like stunted wings. She had no tan lines. Julian remembered something said.
“When my parents go to work, I tan naked in the backyard. What do you think?”
Seamless. It didn’t sound like a word he’d use. His dripping suspicion hardened into something sharp. A lazy breeze blew through the window. The ghostly curtains danced. All was silent but for Julian’s head. His gut, full of acrid wine, felt untrustworthy. He stepped out of the bed and carried himself downstairs.
The VanBrunts’ house had been ravaged. Bottles and cans and cups, some toppled and spilling, covered the kitchen countertop, the dining room table, the tops of bookshelves. A stale, sour smell gripped the air. The TV was on, displaying a snowy non-channel. The mess threatened to make Julian sick, but he swallowed and walked to the study.
One of the high-backed chairs had been upset and lay pitifully, like some fallen animal too awkward to right itself. Julian moved closer and stood it up. He noticed bottles of liquor that belonged to Mr. VanBrunt on the desk. A film of spilt liquid surrounded them and was dripping into the open desk drawer. Julian wondered meekly if he had left the drawer open after stealing a cigarette the previous day. Now only one cigarette remained, and the old photo had been ruined by the spill.
Julian went upstairs and found his jeans sprawled out on the floor near the VanBrunts’ bed. Careful not to wake the girl, he pulled them on and drew his cell phone from the front-right pocket. He dialed a number from memory. Julian staggered out of the house and into the street.
Summer hung heavy outside, its dry presence sinking into the concrete, thickening the air, quivering in the distance. The heat affirmed itself, and Julian knew by now kids would be throwing themselves into the shocking blue-green safety of backyard pools. Grandpas would be sitting indoors, staring into air conditioners. And mothers would be making iced tea and chewing on troublesome thoughts such as heat stroke, skin cancer, car crashes. But Julian was here, on a strange street outside someone else’s home.
Staring down the wide, flat road, he waited for someone to pick up.
“Mom?” he said.
His face was wet with tears, and the words sounded like they were squeezed out of him.
“Where is Dad? Where is he?”