fiction, poetry & more


by Jack King

It was Friday afternoon when my cousin called. I couldn’t say more than hello before he started in with, “Hey, little Bobby!” (which he only said because he knew how much I hated that name). “Got in on the five-thirty. I gotta see that apartment of yours” (it’s a condo), “and meet all them hot chicks you keep talking about.” I only ever mentioned my boss, Helen, and she has the beauty of a dried prune. My family assumed I’d been screwing her, and no amount of insisting would sway them. Eventually one woman became many until I started receiving letters from cousins asking me how the women in Hollywood are (I live in San Francisco), and if they’re easy (which I wouldn’t know), and if I can send pictures (which I didn’t); except my father, who kept asking if I was gay (which I’m not).

I hadn’t seen Phil since the reunion last year, and then I only stayed for a few hours because I can’t stand my family. I never wanted a hand-me-down life in a town where you’re recognized by your father’s name more than your own, only I wasn’t even my father’s son—I was Brian’s brother.

When I got to the station, Phil pulled me into a bear hug. Those same arms dislocated my shoulder when I was eleven. Before he even finished his greeting, he had my wallet yanked out and was handing bills to the dirty men nearby. I tried to stop him, but he put a hand on my chest. “It’s good, little Bobby. I know you’re a giver.”

I took my wallet back, stuck it in my front pocket and kept my hand on it until we got to the car. When he saw my Mercedes, he said, “Ain’t you got no American car?”

He tossed his duffle bag into the trunk and fell into the passenger seat. “How much this run you?” I started the engine and steered out of the parking garage while Phil kept goading me until I finally said, “Forty-five.” He whistled and asked me if I knew what kind of American car I could get for forty-five (I didn’t care), and how could I blow money on a German car but not want to help a fella out.

“Did you see their shoes?” I said. “They weren’t homeless.”

“No shit, Bobby, but they ain’t got no counting job neither.”

“Accountant.” I felt like a kid again, self-conscious and full of doubt, doing whatever the men in my family told me I should.

“When you talk to your pa last?”

I told him I didn’t know (it’d been two weeks), and what business was it of his anyway?

“Well, he said you don’t call no more. Say you his prodigal son, gonna wander like Abraham until God shows you the way. God shown you anything yet, little Bobby?”

I didn’t answer. He went on about family and how he didn’t see what the West Coast had that Virginia didn’t, and how tall the buildings were. He’d been to a city; this wasn’t anything new or novel, and he wasn’t stupid. He was just trying to piss me off.

I ignored him, but he talked all the way up the elevator to my condo. My space is on the top floor with a view of the bay from the loft window. Phil’s voice echoed like he was in an amphitheater. “Where’s the spare room?”

“This is it.”

He whistled. “Hope they ain’t charging you much for this apartment.”

“It’s a condo.”

“How you expecting folks to visit, when you ain’t got no place for ’em to sleep?”

Because I’m not expecting visitors, but instead I say, “There’s the couch.”

He put his arm around my neck, ruffled my hair with his knuckles. “Ain’t you great, letting me have the bed. I gotta shower.” He disappeared into the bathroom, but left the door open and hollered over the running water. “Your brother said you a lost cause and I aim to agree.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I yelled back.

“You don’t visit, you don’t call. It’s like you is embarrassed by us.” I started to respond, but Phil cut in with, “I ain’t judging, little Bobby. Them’s your brother’s words.”

Reminding me of my brother just made me thankful for leaving that life behind. Brian was older and bigger and would beat on me when his friends were around. He’d apologize for it later, say it was my fault for getting in his way. My father told me I needed to learn to fight back. The only thing I ever learned was how to stay out of Brian’s way.

I heard the shower curtain rattle against the rod and figured Phil wouldn’t come out. I climbed the stairs to the loft and reached under the mattress for the little black leather case I kept there, and headed back downstairs.

“Hey,” Phil shouted,“ You member the time Brian took a dump off the highway?”

“Yeah.” I could still picture that night: Brian running toward us, framed in arc lights, pulling his pants up, panic-stricken face. “We were getting back from the movies.”

“He must’ve drunk a gallon of soda and couldn’t wait to get home to piss, except there was an accident and we got stuck in traffic.”

I smiled and unzipped the leather case. I pulled out a little baggie of brown powder, sprinkled a pinch onto a spoon, and worked the faucet in the kitchen until three drops fell out. I stirred it with a toothpick until the powder dissolved. “Billy-Ray was driving.”

“S’right. And we pulled off to that access road.”

“And Brian ran into the woods.” I flicked the lighter on and cooked the spoon. Only took a moment to boil. I glanced up at the bathroom. Steam spilled out of the open door and raced toward the ceiling.

“And he came out not a minute later; said now he had to take a dump!” Phil was laughing.

I laughed with him as I pulled out the silver syringe with a thumb ring on the end of the plunger so I could work it one-handed. The needle was tinted red. I wasn’t very clean anymore. I pushed the shirt up my left sleeve. “You gave him a box of—”

“Tissues, yeah! And he went back—”

I laughed harder, “Was only gone a few minutes when all those arc lights came on and some work crew started toward us.” I spoke through gritted teeth, the rubber tourniquet clenched in my mouth as I wrapped it around my arm.

“And he came running back,” Phil yelled, laughing, “pants ’round his ankles, screaming for us to start the truck.”

I balled my fist until I could find a good vein and slid the needle in. “And some construction worker yelled out—”

Phil finished it, “I stepped in shit!”

We both laughed. I pushed the plunger in.

It’s like a freight train approaching, a low rumble in my chest, building until it slams into me and everything goes numb at once. I fixated on the slow drip of water in the sink. I felt the cool silver of the syringe in my hands. Heart racing, palms sweaty, my whole body throbbing.

I heard Phil yell, “Where you taking me tonight?” and I slipped the syringe out of my vein. Even though I’d only cooked up half a hit, moving was like wading through deep water, like fishing in the lake behind my Uncle Ray’s house. I slipped everything into the case and zipped it up and then I heard Phil behind me saying, “Where we going?” I dropped the case into the sink before turning around. He stood naked and dripping, hair a mass of white soap. “What you got there, Bobby?”

“Nothing,” I said, slower than I wanted. I ran my tongue over my teeth. “Ain’t you got no respect?”

Phil laughed and headed back to the shower.

I slipped the leather case behind the rubber tree and fell into the couch.

After a while, Phil got out of the shower and climbed the stairs to the loft. “Where do you go when you go out?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“How in the hell should I know? This is your town, little Bobby.” In the loft, he whistled while getting dressed. He threw the towel down and it hit the kitchen floor with a plop.

I didn’t want to move. I felt like I’d become a part of the couch. I ran my fingertips along the fabric, felt loose threads poke the skin under my fingernails. My heartbeat throbbed and bulged behind my eyes. I wanted more. I looked over at the rubber tree. My last girlfriend brought it over and said I needed color in my place. I sat with my neck craned around and watched the dusty green leaves bob in an invisible current of air and tried to think of her name.

She dumped me six months ago. I can still see her face, the curve of her cheek as it slid into her chin and came to a kind of rounded point beneath her lips. She had big eyelashes, like two stress marks accenting her face. She used to look at me with a wide, thin-lipped smile and if I didn’t smile back she’d stick her tongue out.

Phil kicked my leg. “What the hell you smiling at, Bobby?”


He went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of beer and handed me one. I held the bottle, feeling the cold radiate up my arm. This seemed good, like it was supposed to be, though I couldn’t say why.

“That counting job done run you ragged.” He fell back into the chair.

“Accountant,” I said, staring at the front door, trying to will him to leave.

“C’mon, little Bobby, let’s get out.”

I stood up as quick as I dared. “All right.”

The Batter’s Box is a bar at the end of my block. I’ve only been there a few times because I hate crowds. We were early and there were only a few people playing pool in the back. The big screens showed highlights from football and baseball games. We sat at the bar and Phil ordered a cheeseburger. I said I wasn’t hungry (I wasn’t anything), but Phil ordered a steak for me (which I didn’t want), and got two pints of beer (which I didn’t need). He ate and talked about home, about my brother, about the harvest, and how my uncle started the sawmill up again. I just listened, riding the high. Half a hit peaks too fast.

The bar gradually filled up and got louder. Most people were dressed for work: men in polished black shoes, women in three- or four-inch heels. Twice Phil said I wasn’t keeping up, forced me to take a drink. I tried to sip, but he’d put his finger on the back of the glass and tilt it up until more ran down my chin than my throat. You should never drink on the way down.

It was after eight when the first wave came on. I ran out to the street before it hit and tossed my guts onto the pavement. Some splattered on the crowd that started piling up out there, and they scattered.

Phil was behind me, laughing. “Damn, Bobby, this city done made you soft. You OK?”

I was dry heaving on account of there being nothing left to come up. “Fine.” I tried to stand up, but stumbled into a light-pole.

Phil laughed and pried my wallet out of my back pocket. “Hold on, little Bobby, I’m gonna go cash out.” I leaned against the light-pole hoping nobody I knew could see me.

When Phil came back, he kept asking if I’d be all right (best I’d be for another hour), and if I wanted to head back (which I did, but not with him), and if I’d be fine at another bar (which I wouldn’t be). We started down the street. I had to take slow steps.

We went to the RipCage because it was the only other bar close by. I don’t usually go there because it’s a gay bar. Nothing wrong with that, but I got enough trouble getting straight dates; don’t need to get turned down by every ball team. There was a cover charge, and Phil said he didn’t have any money so I had to pay. I didn’t have much cash left. I’d have to get some before tomorrow on account of my dealer friend was s’posed to come around.

The bar was full of shirtless men and a few women who looked like men. Phil had to lean in and shout because the music was so loud. “You turned into some kinda queer, Bobby?”

“You wanted a bar.”

“Fine, one beer.” We found a space next to a wall; Phil leaned his back against it and watched the crowd.

When the bartender set down our beers, Phil swallowed half of his, then leaned in and said, “Your brother done sent me out here.”

I nodded and sipped the beer. Bile still stung my throat. My head hurt, but not like a regular headache. It was throbbing in my temples and pulling at my scalp. I wanted Phil to shut up, but that didn’t seem likely.

“Your ma thinks you a lost cause, but Brian says you got some fight left. Said you ain’t gonna hear him, so I should make you hear. You listening?”

“I gotta take a leak,” I said, and slipped off the barstool. I was dragging low and I’d either have to ride again or sleep it off, but I couldn’t do neither with Phil. Near the bathroom, I found a big fella and said, “See that boy over yonder?” I pointed to Phil, and the guy nodded. “He’s new in town, looking for a good time.” I figured that would keep Phil busy awhile.

I got outside and everything was like an old home movie, like the kind my granddaddy used to show at reunions, all gray and yellow where everything moves too fast. I stumbled around and made my way up the street and then I was on my couch with no memory of how I got there. The needle was in my hand, my thumb hooked into the plunger, only it looked like somebody else’s hand. The needle was full, but I didn’t know how much I cooked. I done heard about junkies who got skills with needles. When doctors and nurses can’t find a vein, junkies can, no problem. Only, I’m no junkie. I only ride on the weekend.

I slipped the needle in and pushed the plunger. My hand went numb like I’d gotten an electric shock. The rumbling came like a train coming ’round the bend, and when it slammed into me the world shifted and I watched the needle fall, silver catching the lighting, sparkling just once before it fell out of sight.

I woke on the couch when the sun rose. I remembered the syringe and panicked. I felt between the cushions of the couch and found my leather case and the needle all zipped up and tucked away. I heard Phil snoring upstairs. If he’d caught me, he wouldn’t have put everything away and gone to bed. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure he didn’t see anything. It had to be me, stoned and dreary.

I found my wallet on the kitchen counter. I only had twenty bucks left. Phil did a good job running through all my cash, and he must’ve taken my credit cards because they were all gone. They were maxed out anyway. I’d pawned off everything in my condo I dared to—TV, stereo, computer. I’d have to sell my car. For now, I was hungry and needed coffee. I headed out to the corner bagel shop.

It seemed colder than usual outside. Sometimes when the ride is over, my brain still can’t interpret sensory feeling. Cold feels more like water. I kept wiping my hands on my pants because they felt wet, even though I knew better.

At the bagel shop, Mr. Goldberg offered up the usual greeting, commented on how rarely he sees me on a Saturday morning. I leaned on the counter while he filled the bagel trays in the glass case; his hands were shaking and speckled with dark purple spots. He had a short, squarish face that pulled together in a big ball of a nose, like if you removed it all his skin would fall down to his knees. We talked about the weather, and about the city, how even in hard times folks still want good simple food. He was always friendly. I suppose you have to be if you’re going to run a shop.

I ordered two coffees and two breakfast bagels. When I got back to my condo, Phil was already up. “Where the hell you been, little Bobby?” I held up the bag of food and he snatched it. “Rightly kind of ya, especially after you done ditched me last night.”

“Wasn’t feeling well.”

“Ain’t no excuse to leave family in a scrape.”

“I said I was sorry.”

Phil shook his head. “Little Bobby, I hardly recognize you.”

I didn’t know how to take that, so I sat down and looked at the paper. There was a story about a drive-by shooting in Ashbury Heights. Four people dead. No witnesses. That’s always how it is. Somebody pulls a gun on a busy street and nobody sees it. One of the victims had heroin on him. The grainy picture showed a cop standing behind the Do Not Cross tape. I wondered if it was my dealer in the picture, lump of body under the tarp.

Phil balled up the paper bag and tossed it into the sink. He’d eaten both bagels. I kept my eyes down, but I wasn’t reading anymore. Phil yanked the paper away, scanned the headlines. “Violent place, this city. A fella could get hisself into some trouble right quick, I reckon.”

“Evil men get what they deserve.” I don’t know why I said that. Sometimes it’s like another voice takes over, says what I’m expected to say. What I think everybody wants to hear. I don’t know if I have an opinion anymore.

Phil shook his head. “Ain’t no evil in this world, Bobby. Just folks being what they is, or trying to be what they ain’t.” He pulled his boots on and started for the door.

“Where you going?”

“You ain’t got no food.”

“You don’t know where the store is.”

“Don’t make no matter.” He ruffled my hair. “Gonna get to know your neighborhood real well, seeing as how I’m gonna stay awhile.” The door slammed behind him.

The last thing I needed was a cousin I couldn’t get rid of. I sat on the couch, opened the leather case, and held up the baggie. I had enough for five, maybe six hits.

I started thinking thought about my uncle Roy who worked at the bank. He opened up the ledger one summer and got me interested in numbers. After high school I went to Old Dominion in Norfolk. I had a girlfriend there named Julie. She had a great smile and I thought she was the one. Even bought her a ring. Tiny little speck of a thing. When I proposed, she laughed. Said her parents would never approve of a hick like me. She married another man and moved to Chicago.

I sprinkled all of the powder onto the spoon in a big, heavy mound. Dropped water in, mixed it up. The spoon overflowed. I’d never seen so much mixed up at once. I flicked the lighter on and stared at the flame.


Jack King won first place in the 2005 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest in the thriller category. He works in IT as a cloud engineer. His technical articles have been published in places like Network World and ISSA. This is his first fiction publication.

Harvest Moon 2012