Joe Worthen has been published by Wag's Revue, Hobart, The Master's Review, NOO Journal, Bodega and others.
On the first day of June, before anything had been unpacked, a woman tried to sell us a black dog. The woman had shattered teeth, grey and gold, her hair a thinned nimbus hanging from the back of her scalp. The dog growled low at us, eyes hazed with cataracts, scars rising from fur in long crescents, all sinew and shallow muscle.
“No thanks,” Ashley said.
The woman said she’d sell the dog for five dollars. The woman said it was a good dog and that it was a young dog. But Ashley said “No Thanks” again and we closed the door. Later we saw the dog chewing holes in a boogie board under the transmission towers behind our house. We watched it from the back porch as we drank Coors Light out of sweating bottles.
“I think she left that dog here,” Ashley said. This turned out to be true.
When it got late, Max put on some house music and the three of us sat around on boxes moved into the shape of furniture and talked about the future in our underwear. Fans oscillated across us. Max opened a flat box. He cut the tape with a house key and slid out two black frames on two sheets of paper.
“Lucas Donovan Lipscomb. A humble champion of psychology. He knows his way around the human mind as if it were a sandwich he himself created. He recognizes the various mustards of anxiety, the crooked tomato of childhood abuse.” He framed my diploma, sliding plastic edges, and hung it on the wall. I felt an unexpected stab of pride. Max turned to Ashley, his thick eyebrows relaxed and even. “Ashley Rose Mitchell, in an inspiring display of aptitude, received two degrees in the complimentary disciplines of Art Education and Hotel Management.” Max tacked Ashley’s diploma up next to mine. Ashley fake laughed and wiped sweat from her collarbone with a receipt. Max didn’t have a diploma because he dropped out, so he concluded his ceremony by running a coaxial into the TV and setting some basic cable on mute.
The two of them, arranged on boxes, were my only friends. Max and I met in high school, back when his hair was short and dyed black and his ears were full of rings and plastic. Now the piercings were out and his hair was brown and long, fanned out at his shoulders and secretly conditioned. Max tapped his left Asic to the iPod’s bass and watched Courtney Cox mouth something to Jennifer Aniston.
I’d met Ashley at the back of a sociology class. Every day she wrote a heading like: “Soc Notes 8/5/2017” on paper then filled the page with tight spiral doodles. She bought weed from me twice. Then I fucked her in a pile of laundry on the floor of a dorm room. We dated for a month, then just hung out regular. And sometimes, when the vibe was right, we’d get together again. Because we didn’t have anyone else.
Ashley packed a bowl and we got high, surrounded by whatever was in the boxes, unlabeled and numerous. The CD ended, the final synth drone cut out and we could hear the beat-up dog barking somewhere in the immediate night.
“I wish that we lived at any other time,” Ashley said. She spread her bare feet over the hardwood and closed her eyes.
“We’re custom made for this time Ashley, man,” Max said, arms spread behind him on a ridge of boxes. “We have evolved for it. We’ve got the special vision and the situational awareness to instantly recognize a USB cable. Right Luke?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. Max pulled his sleeping bag down the darkened hall to claim a space. We caught another few episodes of Friends before the infomercials came on. That’s when I got close to Ashley. Right up into her personal space that always smelled like chalk and nicotine. I messed with the back of her bra for a second and when it fell off I tried to kiss her. But she didn’t kiss back, her lips flat and closed.
“What?” I asked her.
“I’m spoken for,” she said. I meant to laugh but I choked a little.
“Are you kidding me?” She started breaking up another clump of weed and didn’t say anything for a bit. I watched a woman talk about stainless steel cookware: she held up pots and pans one at a time.
“That’s all you need to know,” she finally said. Way too late. When I had already crossed that first dim threshold into sleep.
On Monday I put out fourteen applications, then bet on an America’s Next Top Model marathon with Max. We waited until they moved into the house, until they’d been winnowed to the top twenty. Max made an emotional bet on a Kentucky girl who had big feral eyes and a box merlot habit. She’d already started shit with two girls, made out with another and cried seven times. I chose a sober blonde from Maine. Our choices didn’t interact until the fifth episode when Maine walked in on Kentucky, lying on a couch, eating canned chili in a bikini.
“Are you having a good night?” Maine asked. Kentucky made a gesture like: “more or less” and that was it. They continued to photograph better than all the other girls.
During makeovers Kentucky cried in front of the judges and then some more in her confessional video. Maine said thank you and reflected on her luck and opportunity in her confessional video. I could feel her sincerity on me like a tractor beam.
“She’s more together,” Max said. “I’ll give her that. But she’s got no soul.”
“This is America’s Next Top Model, dude. The color of your eyeshadow is more important than your soul. And they hate it when the girls cry.”
“Look what they did to her hair,” Max said.
And I won 50 dollars when Kentucky got eliminated at 1 A.M. Max waved a hot dog at the television, said “fuck you” to no one in particular, and went to bed. I stayed up to watch Maine take second place. She thanked the judges, hugged the winner, and walked off set with her little wire hanging out the bottom of her tank top. Her confessional was so bland they only showed three seconds of it. She said it was a great opportunity. But there was that weird gravity in her eye contact. There was soul to her too, something quiet and willing. Something reflective under the straight crop of her bangs.
I woke up late to the dog barking. I looked out the windows in the kitchen but couldn’t see anything in the dark, not even the steel of the transmission towers, which could sometimes get lit by the moon. I filled a glass of water and watched infomercials. Ashley came out of her room and sat down on the boxes to watch with me. Ashley never slept at night. She’d just get stoned and lie, quasi-conscious, on whatever surface was available. In this state, she was drawn to sounds. She shuffled towards conversations and televisions barefoot, half conscious.
“How many applications did you put out today?” I asked.
“Twelve,” she said. A bargain countdown started on the TV. This was for workout DVDs. I thought about getting them. I was sort of fat. We were all sort of fat from drinking every day and night.
“I was monogamous for you,” I said.
“You just don’t know anyone,” Ashley said. “And you’re afraid of women.”
All of this was verifiable. I wondered how it was that she had been paying so much attention.
“I slept with a couple guys,” she said. Like telling me was no big deal. I immediately imagined they were the two ripped exercise avatars on TV and became insecure.
“Two people. And now this new one. But this new one is serious,” Ashley said. I never would have thought that Ashley got with other guys. She seemed indifferent to sex. Though this possibly reflected badly on me and the things I did and said when intimate.
“Who were they?”
“You want me to tell you about my lovers?”
“Please. Don’t call them that.”
“The first was in a progressive rock band and he slept under a tie dye tapestry of a manticore. His bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a curtain of beads. Physically, he was short and hairy. The second was a Geology TA with clinical depression.” This made me feel sort of better because these dudes sounded terrible, even though she spoke with a gloss of nostalgia.
The exercise avatars in the infomercial squatted in unison and a telephone number started to flash.
I got back from putting applications out on a Friday, made lemonade with Country Time dust and Popov, then went to the back porch. Max was out there driving golf balls down the transmission tower aisle. He was sharp with sweat, outlined by it, wearing only boxers, bare feet planted on the unfinished deck, a wing of hair waving in the heat, eyes focused on the tee jammed between the planks.
“Found a 5-iron, two drivers and a sand wedge from a pawnshop for fifteen dollars. It’s an incredible deal.” I picked the other driver out of the small pile of clubs and joined Max on the edge of the porch. He lit a cigarette and clamped it between his teeth. Hands twisted and aligned into a grip on the club. “They say this is a rich man’s sport.” He hit a deep drive and squinted down his nose after it.
“Anyone get back to you about the applications?” I asked him.
“Not yet.” He pulled two balls out of a plastic bag and set them on the tees. “Your grip is ass, Luke. You are destined to slice.” But he didn’t follow up with any advice so I took the swing and clipped the ball into the tree line.
When we ran out of balls we sat on the edge of the porch and watched a thunderstorm move across the horizon. I imagined the two of us employed, pushing room service carts into elevators, smoking cigarettes behind the massive back wall of the Cineplex, scanning groceries. Even with our ghetto rent and our diet (off-brand soda, alcohol, and 99¢ potpies) our post-graduation funds were fading.
Ashley opened the screen door with her foot and stepped onto the porch carrying two aluminum bowls. She walked past us and set them on the bottom step.
“What are you fucking doing?” Max asked her.
“Putting out food for the dog,” Ashley pulled hair out of her face and raised her eyebrows like she was surprised to find resistance.
“Don’t feed that mongrel creature. It’s dangerous. It chased me to my car on Wednesday.”
“If I see it again I’m calling animal control.” Max tossed his empty into the trashcan and went inside. Ashley stood over the food and water, uncertain. Behind her, the power lines slouched towards the deforested horizon in even intervals. Like the days of summer.
One night at the end of July I made popcorn and the sound drew Ashley into the kitchen. One minute the doorway was empty. Then she was there, moving silent, socks on hardwood. She looked like she had something to say to me. The way her mouth was drawn, like she was preparing something. I assumed she was going to come clean about not really having a boyfriend. Because the two of us got lonely along the same waveform and now I was really lonely, going whole days without speaking to anyone, walking
from strip mall to strip mall writing all my horrible information on hundreds of applications until I hated every small accomplishment I had. Ashley waited for the popcorn to stop to speak.
“I’m having Blake over for dinner to watch the meteor shower,” she said.
“I’m having Blake over on Friday.”
“I think we should unpack some things.” I ate popcorn from the steaming bag and tried to think of a reason not to unpack. I couldn’t think of anything so we unpacked all her kitchen shit and arranged it in cabinets and on hooks. One Converse box was full of forks and knives and I just stuck that whole thing in a drawer. Then Ashley smoked me out and we tried to unpack some of the shit in the living room with less follow-through. In the first box Ashley opened there was nothing but an unlabeled VHS tape.
“Is this yours?” She held it up.
“Yeah – that’s some porn.”
“Why is it in a box all by itself?”
“Max gave it to me when I was fifteen. He said he found it in the janitor’s closet at our high school.” Ashley put the tape in and the infomercials switched to blue, then over to a grainy scene of two women in lingerie kissing. The forms were recognizable but the details were lost in a layer of distortion. “You might not want to watch this,” I said. But one of the girls was already lying on the static-warped carpet and the other squatted over her chest, pulled her underwear to the side and started pissing. The woman on the carpet rubbed the piss into her tits. Ashley didn’t say anything and we watched the whole tape, which involved mostly pissing and ended in a half-hearted moment of fisting. There was no dialogue, just expansive synth pads that belonged in an episode of Cosmos. After, when the screen turned blue, we put the infomercials back on but didn’t unpack anything else.
Even later the dog started at it loud and I knew Ashley had not stopped feeding it. Before I hadn’t cared. But now I knew that Max was right and that to feed it was no good.
Friday afternoon Ashley lit incense that was supposed to smell like Saturn, and started cooking chicken parm. She’d dragged all our oscillating fans into the kitchen, leaving the rest of the house saturated in a miserable heat. She must not have heard it when Blake knocked. I was the only one in the living room, sitting on a box, watching local news. He showed up in those hours that would be dark in any season but summer. I let him in. The guy was wearing an oxford shirt and blue jeans and holding some wine with a picture of a grasshopper on it. He was taller than all of us and bearded like a dude who knows how to microbrew or plant seeds.
“She’s in the kitchen,” I told him. He said thanks and continued past me to his dinner date. Ashley never cooked anything for me that involved more than guessing at times on a microwave. I didn’t even know she had the ability. Or that she owned as many pots as she did. I remembered unpacking each of them and now they haunted me one at a time, floating through my memory and trembling with implications.
I went to chill with Max in his room at the end of the hall. All he’d unpacked was his laptop and the sleeping bag. He sat hunched over the screen in a filthy terrycloth bathrobe, sliding fingertips over the trackpad.
“What you doing man?” I asked. I slicked my hair back with sweat and stepped in.
“Look at this,” he said. I stooped over his laptop screen, cracked and weighted with dead pixels on the left side. He’d got some Facebook page pulled up. He scrolled back to the picture. It was Kentucky from ANTM. “I’ve been chatting her a little bit,” Max said. “Her season aired six years ago. She’s not really famous so I sort of took a shot.”
“What’s she like?”
“She works at a bar and grill in Lexington and her name is Bella.” Max talked about her like he’d grown her in a petri dish. He clicked through her photos in a short slideshow. A hundred glamour shots, skin the color of paint and straight black hair reclaimed from the tragic will of Tyra Banks. “I told her I’m a criminal prosecutor because CSI is one of her interests. She also likes ska.” Max gave me a very serious look as if these two points of interest were enough to triangulate a complete understanding of a person. “My goal is to drive with her on the Blue Ridge parkway when the leaves change this fall.”
I nodded like “this is all pretty solid,” but really I was looking at Max because he was not holding up so good. He hadn’t shaved or even taken a shower in a long time and the smell coming off him was like someone left nachos in a car.
“Do you want some water or something?” He didn’t respond verbally, just packed a bowl.
When I was high I found it hard to think about things that weren’t Ashley. But I couldn’t remember fucking her. I couldn’t remember anything she ever said. I couldn’t even remember her face though I knew I had seen it, lit by the glow of infomercials, almost every night since June.
“Maybe I’m letting her go too easy,” I said.
“We can’t all bring it to ex-reality chicks,” Max said.
“Ashley, I mean,” I said. Then Max tried to take the conversation in a new direction by mentioning that he put out some applications the day before. He found a new strip mall out on West Washington that had a Greek restaurant and a dollar store in it. But neither of us wanted to talk about that at all. I said: “Maybe I’m letting her go too easy,” again.
“Dude calm down.” He let his mouth sort of fall open and smoke rose up out of it in thick strands. “We’re smoking trees.”
“A guy is supposed to know when to fight,” I said. “A guy is supposed to know when to assert himself.”
“Now is not the time to do those things.”
But I didn’t listen to Max. I went to the kitchen.
My pretense was getting beer. Then I was going to be an asshole in some way. Ashley and Blake were talking over dirty dishes at the nexus of all five of our fans. Blake poured the last of his grasshopper wine into two glasses. There was no single candle or anything but things were as romantic as they could probably get under the circumstances.
“Hey y’all,” I said as I opened the refrigerator. I pulled some beer out and made a big deal about looking for a beer opener.
“It’s twist off,” Ashley said.
“Don’t know if I introduced myself,” I held out my hand to Blake. “I’m Luke.”
“Blake,” Blake said. His whole thing was actually really stupid.
“You in college around here?”
“Yeah. I got one more year at upstate,” he said. He was being patient with me. I could see it in the corners of his eyes. “Did you study art too?”
“Ashley studied art education,” I told him for free. Then I sat down because I was feeling really confident. “Job market is really rough out here right now.” His beard moved into a little smile.
“I’m teaching Spanish classes this summer.” He took a drink of wine. Ashley was watching me. She didn’t look annoyed yet, just full and a little dizzy.
“He’s bilingual,” she told me, not bragging, just making sure I’d put it together.
“Yeah? I took Spanish,” I said. “I took Spanish for six years.”
“Can you speak?”
“Not really. Didn’t pay attention.” I was bragging. Like I cared less than anyone else in the world.
“Say something in Spanish for me,” he said. Then he said something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. I looked at Ashley. She wiped marinara off her lip and didn’t help me with anything.
“No me gusta Español,” I said. I laughed. I was the only one. Blake said something else in Spanish. Then he said:
“Really, come on, say something in Spanish. You took it for six years; don’t you remember anything?”
“It didn’t really stick.”
“It didn’t stick?”
“I guess – ”
“Do you think it’s cool not to learn things?”
“No,” I said.
“Say something in Spanish. You must have learned something. Come on, bro.” He switched back to Spanish. He spoke quickly and didn’t break eye contact at all. And he kept nodding like I was following what he was saying. He did this until a sheen of sweat appeared below his hairline. I couldn’t look at his eyes anymore so I looked at the bottle of grasshopper wine and somehow that was worse so I got up while he was still talking and left the kitchen. I should have listened to Max. I should have tried to look Maine up, developed a fantasy where we could be in love. Or gone to sleep. I should have watched TV. I lit a cigarette, sat down beside some boxes and stared at my framed degree.
Really late, we watched the meteor shower from our back porch. It lasted for hours. We didn’t say much. Blake kept his arm around Ashley. Max seemed to lose consciousness slouched against a wall in his horrible bathrobe. I mostly drank Coors and worried about the present/future in intensifying whorls. Then the dog showed up. It came out of the black veil of our backyard slow, under the lunar glow of the transmission towers, looking like it had been hit by a car. One of its legs was dragging and the whole back of it was raw. After a short period of silence, it started barking, its jaws moving like traps snapping shut, every shallow muscle taut under shredded fur. The way it was barking, it was hurt bad, dying, a noise like whole books tearing in half. I picked Max’s 5-iron off the deck and stepped into the grass thinking of mercy.
Before the dog could snap at me I hit it in the side of the skull with the club, right above the eye. The dog kept making sounds but now they were pathetic. I looked down at it. I hadn’t killed it. The second time was harder. My arms felt heavy and the club felt light. But then the whites of its eyes and teeth blacked out with closing or with blood and it was done.
I looked back at the shadows on the porch and forgot who all of us were and what we were doing. It was a stalling sensation – being completely separated from the past. Someone might have been crying. Someone was definitely crying. And the stars above us were moving quick.