I walk into mom’s house, see all the boxes, see all the shit that’s supposed to go in the boxes, smell that cat piss carpet cheese smell, and walk right back out. Sissy comes running onto the porch, angry already.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m not going to help today, Sissy,” I say, getting back in my car.
“Don’t call me that. And you can’t just not help today. Today’s the day. There is no other day.”
“I can’t do it today,” I say, closing the car door so there’ll be a barrier between us, and also because I’ve decided to drive away. I follow impulses when I get them. Works out well about half the time.
“What the fuck?” she yells as I start the car and back out. She comes running after me, down the driveway, hyena-haired and yelling. I brake at the bottom of the driveway and roll down the window. But just a crack.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she says, exaggerating how out of breath she is. “I know this is hard for you, but grow a pair.”
“Do you have any cigarettes?”
“Get serious!” she shrieks. “Now turn around and drive back up this driveway. It’s a fucking disaster zone in there, and I need your help.”
It’s clear that no cigarettes will be forthcoming, so I peel out. She slams the back of the car with her fist, runs a few steps after me, then gives up and stands in the middle of the road, just watching me drive off.
I decide to have a Fun Day. It’s been awhile since I’ve had one, and it’s gotten a lot harder since pretty much everyone left town. Some people are still around, but no one too exciting, except for my ex Cheryl, who’s nothing special, but funny sometimes, and still hot, although a year behind the Thriftway deli counter has hunched her shoulders and pulled her down into her thighs and pumped her full of chicken smell. The point being that she won’t be hot for much longer. But beggars, as they say, and I can feel that this Fun Day requires another human being, because I sure as hell don’t want to spend the day in Michael’s room, which I’ve been renting from Michael’s mom since Sissy kicked me out of the shithole she shares with this dude Barker, who claims he played drums with The Presidents before things took off and they dumped him for someone more marketable. Why Barker doesn’t try a little harder to be marketable, I don’t know. Guy shits with the door open. The straight-up hatred between him and me is probably the main reason I got kicked out of there, the other one being, in all fairness, that I hadn’t exactly been looking for work. I told Sissy I was going to the library to submit my resume online, but the three straight hours I’d spent doing that had resulted in exactly one e-mail back, from a call center out in Tukwila, which made me suicidal to even think about. So instead of walking into the library each morning, I started walking into the woods behind it, where I’d been growing a few weed plants from seeds Michael had brought me when he was last in town. I knew the spot was probably too public, you could see the playground through the trees, but in other ways it was perfect: soft light all afternoon, and far enough off the trail that if you crouched down beneath the scrabbly bushes, and if there were no kids screaming on the swings, it was like you were a hundred miles from everything. I thought once those plants started to outgrow their humble home I’d ask Cheryl about putting them at her place, Marcus notwithstanding, and maybe we could get a little business going. That was before the day last week, not long after mom pulled her little stunt, by which I mean dying, when on a trip back to the clearing, sick to shit of hearing Sis cry and ready to spend a little time amongst the greenery, I found a great big scraped-over empty patch of nothing where my weed plants had been. The first time I’ve cried in a long time. Sitting there in the dirt like an idiot.
Not sure why it hit me so hard. Maybe because in spite of my general fuckupedness at most things I was suddenly exhibiting a pretty serious green thumb. Weed plants are girls, apparently, and these ones twisted up and opened so quickly that I think they were crushing on me. Little buds whispering my name. I kept our relationship strictly professional though, having laid off all substances around New Year’s in the hopes that some clarity of mind would provide me the wherewithal to improve my situation, or least get me the hell out of Michael’s room. Michael’s mom had a way of knocking on the door with a plate of food just as I was about to blow, the hundred millionth wack-off of my life, according to official calculations, and most of those in honor of Cheryl. That was my other New Year’s Resolution: find some other girl to masturbate to.
Nonetheless. Here I went, or go, or whatever. Park the car, through the sliding doors. Some new magazines on the rack, but nothing special.
Cheryl is at the deli helping this old man I don’t recognize. She’s using her Splenda voice: sweet and fake. I know she can see me, but she doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t even wink at me. When the guy leaves, Cheryl bends over and starts shoving the enchiladas around under the heat lamp like she’s making them prettier. I just watch her for a while, grinning a big angry smile.
“That enchilada’s probably pretty good by now,” I say.
“What do you want,” she says, moving on to the spinach. She’s trying to fluff it up but the spinach is too wet to be fluffed so it looks pretty stupid, what she’s doing. Glooping it around.
“When do you get off?” I ask, my voice coming out hostile.
“Not for five hours.”
“When’s your lunch break?”
“Marcus is bringing me Subway.”
“Oooh, Marcus,” I say. Then I feel stupid because I know I sound like a kid. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
“I know you don’t like black guys—” she says, straightening up, finally, to glare at me.
“I like black guys just fine.”
“—but not everyone is a racist such as yourself.”
“Relax,” I say. “I just came by to say hi and see if you want to have a Fun Day with me.”
“And what does that involve?”
“I don’t know. Having fun. Doing something fun.”
“I’m working,” she says. “And things are pretty serious with Marcus now. Maybe you should stop coming around so much. Move on.”
Another deli worker walks over to refill the macaroni and cheese bin, and Cheryl goes back to fluffing the spinach.
“I have moved on,” I say, when the deli worker has left and Cheryl is shooting me the daggers again.
“Last time we hung out you told me you still loved me, and then you called me a fat bitch when I said I didn’t love you anymore, and then you tried to fuck me anyway.”
“Whatever,” I say.
Suddenly she gets this weird look on her face. She even puts her hand over her mouth. Like if someone told you to act surprised, that’s what you’d do.
“Holy shit,” she says. “I totally forgot. I heard about your mom.”
“Yeah, it sucks,” I say. “I guess.”
“Oh my god. I—” She looks like she’s about to cry.
“Nothing much to say about it,” I say.
“Do you—you must be so upset.”
“I’m okay.” Cheryl is looking less and less likely to be a part of my Fun Day. “I guess you’re working. Maybe I’ll come by later.”
“Wait,” she calls after me. But I’ve turned around and am already walking back along the candy aisle, running my fingers along the candy, touching each one. Kit Kat, Almond Joy. “If you wanna come back in an hour and have lunch, I’ll tell Marcus not to come!” she says.
“Yes or no?” she calls, but the front doors are sliding open and I’m already back in the parking lot.
The thing about a Fun Day is that it takes work. Everyone’s gotta be committed to the enterprise. And you need to kind of forget every day that’s already happened, and not think too much about the days that are coming, and whether or not they’ll be Fun, and whether you’ll ever have a Fun Day again. If you overthink it, a Fun Day can even become a Bad Day. So when you get the formula right and successfully transform a day into a Fun Day, or—even more impressive—when a Bad Day becomes a Fun Day, the particularly difficult feat I was attempting to engineer at this very moment, you need to leave it the fuck alone, which means not talking about your mom who just died or the fact that one Fun Day participant loves another Fun Day participant, who doesn’t love you back.
I don’t even love Cheryl. I just like having sex with her, and sometimes when we hang out she can be pretty funny.
I drive around town, just cruising. Cheryl’s pretty much the extent and the bottom of my barrel, friend-wise, since everyone left, although there is one other option, not a friend so much as some guy I happened to go to school with, two years above me. We used to smoke cigarettes back by the dumpster before the morning bell. He was a weird guy. Funny and loud most of the time, but then a few days a month he’d just be real quiet, hard to get him to talk even. I used to think if there was anyone who’d shoot up the school, it would be him, but instead he joined the army, spent a couple months in Iraq before they sent him back for reasons that he was pretty damn vague about whenever anyone asked.
I stop at the recruiting office, which is actually just a room with no windows in the back of the travel agency. I guess times are tough at the Army if they can’t afford their own space. Suzy who runs the travel agency and is also its only employee isn’t at her desk in the front room, which is a relief. She always seems way too happy to see me, maybe because I went to school with her daughter Elsie, the girl who starved herself to death in ninth grade, unleashing about a million months of educational assemblies and positive pep rallies and the usual bullshit, although a couple years later you could still see little half-girls slinking through the halls, barely able to walk. I admired Elsie in a way, for setting a trend, although it seemed like a gutless way to go. Just add nothing and wait. There are no pictures of Elsie on Suzy’s desk, just lots of beach scenes and snowy peaks, although I bet Suzy hasn’t been past Tacoma in years, the travel industry not being a very lucrative industry these days, at least if you’re an overweight over-the-hill divorced mom with a dead daughter, sitting at a tiny desk in a shitty town with a few fading posters of tropical islands fighting for space with the “Army Strong” ones on the dusty front window. Suzy’s probably gone out back for a secret cigarette. I hope for her sake she’s developed some bad habits.
I can hear Ricky back in his little cubbyhole, probably jacking off to snuff videos. Before he can really see who’s coming, he jumps up from where his legs have been propped up on the desk. He’s standing there trying to look official when I come in.
“Fuck you,” he says, when he sees it’s me.
“Fuck you,” I say, sitting down on the yellow chair usually reserved for some high schooler pumped up on protein powder and sick to death of pine trees. Ready for sand and heat, at any cost. “You lured any dumbasses to their death today?”
“You thinking of joining up?” he says. “Because I don’t think you could even pass the fitness test, you scrawny fuck. Flex. Flex.”
“I got a proposition for you,” I say.
He’s back in his chair now, feet on the desk and hands behind his head. “Let me ask you something first. You remember Marsha Handelman?”
“Marsha Handelman,” he says. “Your year. Real stupid. We thought maybe she was retarded? So get this. I ran into her at Movie Magic. Turns out her dad got sick, so she dropped out of Central and moved back home. I invite her over to my place, a few beers, bam, she’s got her pants off, begging me to eat her puss. This was last night. Chick starts moaning like a cow when I get my tongue in there.”
“I’m not done with the story.”
“Listen, why don’t you take off work and come do something with me.”
“I can’t leave, man. Someone might come by. It’s April.”
“Since when do you give a shit about this job?”
“I give a shit about my paycheck. No offense, but I don’t want to become you. Although to be honest with you, the job does itself. Not really a match for my intellectual abilities. But I gotta maintain a presence here. I get up to ten this year, they’re gonna give me a Land Rover. Refurbed probably, cheap bastards. But I’d take it.”
“Come on. We’ll do something fun. Go into the city or something. I could use some company.”
“Nah, I don’t go into the city anymore. Too many faggots with their little shoes. Plus I got plans tonight. Gonna grab a few beers with Marsha the horny tard.”
“Alright, man.” I can feel the door glowing behind me all of a sudden, like in a video game. Walk through me.
“Hey, you still hung up on Cheryl? Because I saw her strolling around town with some black dude the other night. If you need some back-up, I don’t discriminate on the ass-kicking front.”
“I’ll let you know,” I say, standing up to go.
I circle the town and end up parking at the library. It’s getting dark but there’s still light coming through the trees and I dig through the ground again, looking for any trace of my plants. Even a root would probably be enough if I gave it a little time and space, didn’t expect anything too soon. But all there is is dirt, and this huge beetle that scuttles away when I poke it. I sit down on the ground. There’s this damp smell like old trees sleeping. All of a sudden I do something I haven’t done since I was a kid—I take off my shoes and dig my toes into the dirt. If I could I would bury myself in dirt up to my neck, just stay there through the night, held tight by the ground. But if you dig more than a couple feet there’s rocks. So I take some dirt and kind of smear it on my face, not thinking really, just listening to the sound of the kids on the playground and sometimes the crash of wood or the beep of a truck backing up at the lumberyard. The grind of a motorcycle on the main road. Then I take off my shirt and spread dirt across my chest and sit cross-legged on the ground for a while longer, listening to the sounds that are closer—a woodpecker knocking nearby, something rustling in the grass, pine needles clicking against each other in the wind. Then I want more dirt on me, it’s not enough, so I pull down my pants and spread dirt on my legs and my dick and reach back and spread dirt on my ass, until my whole body is covered, and then I lay back naked and close my eyes. It’s crazy, but that’s what I do.
I try not to put myself into other people’s shoes too often, because I have enough shit to figure out in my own life without crying a river about yours. But sometimes I imagine what it must have been like for Sissy when I was born. Mom screaming on the couch, too crazy to make any preparations, too paranoid to call for help, Sissy seven years old and probably scared out of her mind, grabbing towels from the bathroom to sop up the blood, or whatever. I don’t know how it works. Mom’s screaming finally bringing the neighbor knocking on the door to take her to the clinic, where they chopped my cord and delivered me finally into the world, pissed off and confused.
But there was a long time before the neighbor came, when it was just mom and me and Sissy. She says that when my head was out I stopped crying for a minute and just looked around, silent as a clam. Probably looking around at this shithole and wondering how hard it would be to go back the way I came. Such a long pause that Sissy put her fingers inside mom’s vagina, grabbed my head and pulled as hard as she could, Mom screaming, Sissy screaming, me screaming by then again too, the neighbor at the door screaming let me in.
That’s the thing I admire about Sissy, I guess, although I still think she’s a pain in the ass, and kicking me out of her place just to prove a point was the stupidest thing she’d ever done. But that’s the thing about her. When she gets scared or confused or angry, she does something. I just sit there, looking around.
It’s dark when I drive back up the driveway, and Sissy is sitting on the front steps, kind of leaning against the railing, head slumped and eyes closed. The door is half-open and behind it I can see that there’s still shit everywhere. Some of the cardboard boxes are put together on the front porch, but there’s nothing in them.
I roll down the window and Sissy looks up at me, but doesn’t say anything.
“Well?” I say.
“What the fuck do you want me to say?” she says, after a minute.
“Are you pissed?”
“Take a wild flying guess.”
I look at the dump of a house, sagging in the darkness. I guess it was an upgrade from the old one, but not really. It hadn’t taken mom long to fill it with all her old shit plus a ton of new shit. The social services people kept telling her she had to go to all these groups in the city if she wanted to keep the checks coming, but mom could be a wily bitch when she wasn’t being a crazy bitch, and she knew how to tell them what they wanted to hear, and then do whatever she wanted.
Sissy rallies. “I think you’re an incredible baby and you better grow the fuck up.”
“Working on it.”
“And what’s on your face?”
“I don’t understand you at all,” she says, and then it’s quiet for a while. Some owl hoots and I hoot back.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Sissy says.
“I don’t know. Let’s just drive around.”
I unlock the passenger door but she gets in the back seat, lies down, and closes her eyes.
I decide to take Sissy to Dairy Queen, buy her a blizzard or something. I kind of feel bad about everything. But she’s sleeping when we pull into the drive-through and she just mumbles something when I wiggle the ice cream under her nose, so I sit there in the parking lot and eat it myself, and watch her sleep. She does kind of look like Mom sometimes, when her face gets relaxed. I can see it.
I don’t want to wake Sissy up, so I just drive for a while. Past the travel agency slash recruiting office and through the Thriftway parking lot, where Cheryl’s car is gone, and by the bookstore that closed down, and past the high school, and then along the long stretch of road that leads down to the water. As I pull up I see some kids on the beach, a lot younger, fifteen or sixteen years old. They’ve started a bonfire and are sitting around it drinking forties. It reminds me of the night that Cheryl and I built a little fire down there, just the two of us, and after we were pretty drunk and had made out a bit, and after she’d touched my dick through my pants for the first time, we called Luke and Michael and a few other people we knew back then, and everyone came down, and we all sat around the fire until the sun came up, walking down sometimes to scream across the water towards the tiny planes taking off from Sea-Tac, blinking higher and higher into the night.
I’ve stopped the car by the turn-off, and the kids are looking at us now, laughing. One of them throws a can in our direction, but it bounces off the metal divider between us and the beach. Sissy whispers something in her sleep. I honk at the kids, then pull out and keep driving, back past the Thriftway, where pretty much all the cars are gone now, and past the video store, which clicks off its neon sign as we pass, and past the bar, where a few stragglers stand outside spewing bullshit and smoking, no one I know, and along the dark highway to the west of town, and then back again—faster now—past the high school, and then the bookstore, and the bar, and along the dark highway, and back into town. Around and around.