Isaac Boone Davis
Even before the turkey shot Mama Cooper, the party was a disaster.
I didn’t want to be there. I’m not sure anyone did. Their house smelled like soup and everyone’s temper seemed to bleed in razor rivers out on the paper plates. The giant picture of Ben wearing a Knicks hat and a bunny rabbit smile loomed at everyone from the kitchen. He could have been a first round draft pick in that photo. Ear-to-ear cheesing, hugging Maya in a club somewhere. The R.I.P. in the left hand corner and the We Miss You banner just above his name: Ben Cooper July 7th 1984- October 23rd 2009, “Sugarman.” Next to the picture there’s an enormous sheet of paper where all the guests can leave Ben a birthday wish. Or maybe just tell him how much he meant to them. Since I didn’t know Ben, I was having some trouble deciding what to write. I got him a present. You’d think that would be enough.
On the back porch I help myself to a beer. Cody, the yellow Labrador retriever, noses a green tennis ball. It’s my third Budweiser, but no buzz is forthcoming. Ben’s little brother Rusty blabs into a cell phone on the opposite end of the porch. His voice is high and shredding like an incoming missile: “Yeah, I told him we can do it that way too. I said ‘buddy, there’s the three f’s.’” He ticks them off on his short red fingers. “Fighting, fucking, and framing, and I do them all quite well. Nah…He changed his tune real quick.” Inside, the women are cooking. Even Maya, who makes eggs that taste like spare change. “Yeah man,” Rusty’s tone lowers like he’s trying to sound wiser. “She’s here too.” Ben’s name is tattooed on Rusty’s forearm. Those same dates on the banner running from his elbow to his wrist below a ghostly cross.
I open the backyard gate and step into the driveway. I’ve never met the Coopers before today. They don’t seem to want me here. I’m Ryan, Maya’s new boyfriend. And I really don’t like beer.
“The love of my life.” That’s how Maya described Ben. The same choice of words over and over again, his title. Not that her life has exactly given her much love to choose from. She had one of those childhoods that make you wonder if social workers aren’t just frustrated serial killers. Fourteen foster families that all kept the receipt and eventually gave her back to the state. The first eighteen years were a rain slick of juvenile centers, county jails, women’s shelters, and. maybe, a mental institution if she was lucky. After that she hit the road. Dancing from Detroit, to Miami, to Dallas, and finally, here, Port Trampa, the lip gloss graveyard.
Ben seemed to have had a better go of things. The Coopers live in a clean, two-story house with eucalyptus trees in the yard. Maybe he was a wayward son. A middle-class kid who decided to sell dope and eventually fell in love with a stripper. They were together for four years. They lasted through a nine-month jail term (his), a fuck you affair with a Buccaneer linebacker (hers), monumental drug habits (both), and a bullet in the neck from seventeen-year-old ecstasy dealer named Goods (also his). There was also the loss of his truck detailing business; a car crash where she broke her back in two places; and the suicide-by-cop of her best friend in a CVS parking lot. There’s no aphrodisiac like scar tissue. They got engaged on Christmas Eve.
Ten months later he was dead. His heart had seized up in the back bedroom of his father’s house in West Virgina. He was living with his dad at the time and that’s who found him. Naked with his dick in his hand, blood still dribbling out his nose, an amateur porn on the TV playing an endless, taunting loop.
“He O.D.’ed on coke?” I asked Maya when she told me the story. “No one O.D.’s on coke.”
“He had a heart condition, asshole.” She spent the next two years in a blue coma. Twenty four months of oxy’s, heroin, men, tears; finally she got herself Baker-Acted after she jumped off her second-story balcony. She stayed in the hospital for a week. After that, she started going to N.A. meetings. That’s where she met me. And that’s how I got invited to Ben’s birthday. You know, closure.
Of course, when she said “love of my life” I heard “dick like a rolled up Sunday newspaper.” I wasn’t any kind of failed kingpin like Ben had been. Just your average recovering crackhead with torn Adidas and a suspended license. And she’s starting to notice. Whatever dipped-in-shit run of luck that had brought Maya into my life seemed to be on its way out. When I walk through the kitchen and stroke her shoulder she hisses like a popped tire.
“What Ryan?” The ladle smacks the red sauce.
“I just wanted to see what you guys were up to.” This seems reasonable, if entirely false.
“Just making food, babe. Why don’t you go back outside?” The celery she chopped are little green snowflakes, no two even vaguely resembling each other.
“Oh, he’s just checking on his girl. Don’t be so hard on him.” Mama Cooper, or Marcie as she may prefer, wheels an army surplus-sized pan of some indistinguishable potato product into the oven above the still frosty turkey. There doesn’t really seem to be any theme to the food today. Pasta, turkey, potatoes, some kind of casserole that resembles gravel, a big red wiggling platypus that we’ve all agreed to call Jell-o.
“Okay. Well he’s done checking. Me and Mama was having a conversation. Ryan, go back outside. Go talk to Rusty. You’d like Rusty.” I would not like Rusty.
“Oh, he would like Rusty,” Mama agrees. Maya, not creatively, refers to her as “my white mama.” She’s only forty-five with skin tight enough to trap a wolverine. She’s a good looking woman even if the purple bandana and the crystals dangling off her neck make her look more like Janis Joplin’s personal trainer than anyone you would call “Mama.” In the dining room Alexis, Ben’s sister, smiles at me while she rearranges the plates.
“Ryan come here, I want you to meet my boyfriend.” She waves me over and I’m shaking hands with a willowy green-eyed black guy named Kenyatta.
“Pleasure, man,” he says in a voice deeper than the Hillsborough river. Alexis Cooper is the only member of the family I’ve ever met before today. She and Maya strip at the same club on Dale Mabry.
“‘Yatta’s a basketball player,” Alexis beams.
“Oh, no shit?” I say. “Me too, in high school.”
“Yeah, I’m heading up to Illinois. Got a tryout with Quad City.”
“No shit,” I repeat. That poet laureate medal will be arriving any day now.
“Sad occasion, you know?” Kenyatta gestures with his chin, which is about as straight as an Olympic javelin.
“Ben. He was a cool dude, man. Real people. Maya’s a great girl, man. It’s like she’s not just beautiful on the outside,” he gives me a diagonal eyebrow. “She’s beautiful on the inside too.”
“You two been together long?”
“Bout three months. How about you and Alexis?” He laughs into his shoulder which I interpret as “Dude, you got better things to worry about.” My eyes follow his compass of a chin to the poster.
I miss you every day baby not a day goes by I don’t wish I was with you — Maya
Stir it up buddy!!!!!! Lol
You are my angel, my life, my son, my memory and my hope. I will never give you up — Mama.
There are a few more scrawlings and a valentine with an arrow through the aorta. The air conditioner makes the poster flutter like a trembling hand. The light from outside slices through the paper. We wince and we drink. This is Tampa, Florida, where the sunshine hurts your eyes.
By December I was measuring myself by how little suicide I had committed the night before. Twenty bucks was nothing. If that was all I spent it was like I hadn’t gotten high. Didn’t count. Forty was a fuck up. A hundred and the next morning I was massaging my heart with a handgun.
“I’m not this kind of person,” I’d tell the gun.
Every day I’d forget to pay a bill; lose a friend or blow somebody’s trust. I slept on strangers’ couches or rented a room for a month or two before ultimately getting hucked on my ass for smoking the rent.
“Hey buddy! This ain’t working out.” The landlord jabbing his fat fingers into my chest.
“Man, I’m just having a rough time. Trust me, I’ll have it.”
“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
On the second to last day of the year I tried to rob the Winslow convenience store on 32nd and Nebraska. I was sparked out of my mind and needed a rock more than I needed oxygen. I wandered up and down the pork rind aisle rubbing the .38’s butt like a rosary. The Sikh lady behind the register with the teddy bear eyes stared at me when I put the gun on the counter.
“I need what’s in there.”
“You what — what do you? No!” My eyes cut to the door. I held my breath.
“Whatever cash you got. I just need the cash.” She grabbed for the piece and only found my sleeve. I snapped my wrist back and we both go flying. The Five-Hour Energy shots on the counter-stand toppled to the floor.
“No!” She screamed. “Help!”
“Please,” I said and I aimed the gun at her throat. “Please.”
A week later, I was in a N.A. meeting. Everybody hugged and drank coffee. At the end of every session they’d hand out these key tags with different colors for how much clean time you had. If you had a year or so they’d let you say a little something.
“Who are you and how did you do it?” they’d ask. The answer was always the same.
“So what did you get him?” Over the last seven minutes I’ve learned about Rusty’s preference for Puerto Rican women, his fantasy football team (he has many hopes for Maurice Jones-Drew), the time he and his buddy Jon Loc stole an ATM from a county fair, and why he won’t drink coffee. I haven’t spoke. Instead I’ve been picking sunflower seeds out of my teeth.
“For Ben. I saw y’all came in with a box.”
“Yeah. We got him a Bigfoot doll. Maya said he used to — ”
“Ben used to fucking love those Bigfoot shows.”
“Yeah, that’s what she told me.” This had revealed a surprisingly nerdy side of Ben. Apparently somewhere in between ripping off a Piru set and trying to start his own clothing line, Ben had found great solace in the hunt for Sasquatch.
“I’d tell him over and over again, there ain’t no Bigfoot. Cause if there were,” he plunges a red brick hand into the bowl of sunflower seeds, “somebody would have him on tape by now. All the cell phone cameras and whatnot.”
“Don’t they have a video?” I debate another beer. The beer wins.
“That shit was so fake. Some guy in a Halloween suit. You got him a doll?”
“Yeah. Cost like twenty bucks.”
“That’s retarded. You ever see his ‘Bu?”
“Heard about it.” The first night Maya and I slept together I lasted about as long as it takes to flip a coin. We talked over each other, me apologizing and her explaining how Ben had loved his 1965 Chevy Malibu hardtop more than he’d loved her. It didn’t really make me feel better, but since I can’t drive at least it was one way I couldn’t disappoint her.
“Had that bitch on ‘28’s, looked like wagon wheels. People told him you can’t put no ‘Bu on 28’s. Won’t work. Ben said ‘fuck what you heard.’ Stunt lights…damn, it was like, don’t hurt ‘em.” He gives a little gospel hand splay.
“Where’s it at now?”
“Got seized.” Tony, the homicide detective, Mama Cooper’s second husband, flips an orange frisbee to Cody. He nods to us and points at the dog.
“He moves slower than you, Rusty.”
“Let that dog spend sixty hours hanging drywall next week. See how fast he moves.”
“Sixty hours, huh?” Tony’s voice is wet soft. If he hadn’t become a badge he could have been a soul singer. He gives the frisbee a last fling and glides up to join us on the porch. He’s wearing a golf shirt one size too small. His dark muscles swim underneath the denim.
“Sixty hours? Rusty a working man, huh?” Tony smiles at me. It’s like an uppercut with toothpaste.
“You want to call my boss?”
“I don’t want to call nobody. I make phone calls all week. I’m off today.” Tony pops the imaginary lapels on his shirt as if he were wearing suspenders. Rusty takes a breath. When Tony breaks eye contact it makes a snapping sound. My own step-father is an HVAC repairman named Dave. He has a Sprite with dinner every night and goes to sleep by nine. He’s the most inoffensive human being on earth and I’m still not ready to forgive my mom. I like Mama Cooper, but I can’t think of anything worse you could do to your son than marrying a cop when he’s in the tenth grade.
“So, Ryan, how you doing?”
“Fine. Thank you for having us here.”
“So how long you and Maya been seeing each other?” There’s something deceptively idle in his tone. Like the magician about to guess your card.
“About three months.”
“Well she’s a great girl. It’s good to see her moving on.” Rusty picks up the frisbee and considers it before dropping it back to the ground.
“Y’all met in N.A. right?” Rusty chimes in.
“Yeah…yeah, we did.” I begin to itch. The beer tastes like grease in my gut.
“Well that’s good. That’s real good. She’s a real nice girl, Maya. Ben was very fond of her.”
“I think Maya got that fever,” Rusty cackles over Cody’s barking. “She like her some white boys.” Well, I suppose someone had to say it sooner or later. It is a little hard to miss, the skin braiding going on at the Cooper home today. Me and Maya; Tony and Mama Cooper; Kenyatta and Alexis; Rusty and his imaginary Puerto Rican women; all of us playing on the melanin see-saw. Tony double clutches his drink and stomps his foot with laughter.
“I’d say so, Rusty. I’d say she does.” I laugh too.
“I thought it was only the fever when the white girl got with the black man.” Apparently, Rusty is an authority on this sort of thing.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Tony reflects.
“What do they call it when it’s the other way around?” Rusty asks.
“They don’t call that nothing. So Maya’s getting high again?” Inside the house I hear classic rock and oil in a skillet. Tony’s face is mild marble. I read “Are you going to bother lying, son?” in his eyes.
“She’s not getting high anymore. Maya? You…you mean, Maya?”
“I do mean Maya. Who did you think I meant?”
“Um, no, no she’s good now.”
“Oh?” says Tony wiping away some imaginary sweat from his forehead. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.” I want to apologize to him. Apologize for my name, my face. Tell the air I’m sorry for breathing it.
“Yeah, I’m wrong a lot,” he continues. “Wrong so much I’m starting to get good at it.” He goes back to his staring contest with the sun. “You know, she just threw up in there. You do know that, right?”
“Maya, your girlfriend. She just threw up in the garbage can — well most of it got in the garbage can. See, I’d’a thought she was dopesick. But maybe that’s just this crazy line of work I’m in starting to cynical-ize my point of view. Is that a word? Cynical-ize?”
“When was this?”
“Oh, a few minutes ago. You might want to check on her. I’m sure she’s fine and all, but you may want to go and make sure.”
In recovery they talk about the pink cloud. The big, soft, cotton candy colored wave of emotion that overcomes you with good vibes after your first few weeks off the dope. I think it’s mostly bullshit. Unless you got health insurance, getting clean hurts. But then I met Maya. And I realized I don’t know anything. In the middle of the sad-eyed tragic concrete, she was human graffiti. All that merciless beauty; the black girl with the blonde hair and the giant, store-bought titties. A sharper than life image broken in all the right places. During the meetings she’d clap when people would share; she’d cry when they would pray. She was an oncoming train with the cost of shattered things in her eyes. I was healed. I was fucked.
“I’m really scared to be here,” she told me the first night I met her.
“You’ve got nothing to be afraid of,” I lied.
In the hallway behind us a woman with a treble clef tattoo on her neck and one painted eyebrow gnawed into her phone. “Bullshit,” she said. “I told them ‘Hell no, I’m not ready.’ They said thirty days and I was like ‘Hell, no.’ The shit I was doing? Give me ninety days and I’ll piss for them. Hell, I’ll piss all over the judge and it’ll be clean piss too.”
“See,” I said. “Everybody got troubles.”
In the kitchen Maya’s plopped out on a stool shivering and sweating like a spent fighter. Mama Cooper fans her with a spatula inadvertently roiling the meat fumes with the air conditioning.
“Maya’s not feeling good,” Mama explains.
“I’m fine.” She knee knocks, one eye rolling sideways. “I don’t need to lay down.”
“Nobody said anything about laying down. Let’s get you a little water.” Mama’s voice slides through my skin while she applies a washcloth to the back of Maya’s neck.
“Baby, you’re sick.” I try to wipe away the bilious crust off her mouth but she flashes her hands at me, knuckles first.
“Get away please. Can you do that Ryan? Can you please leave me alone for a second?” Kenyatta nudges past. He unravels a paper towel next to the sink and begins to clean the sides of the garbage can.
“Maya, go on up to Ben’s room and lay down for a minute.” Marcie takes the butter from the fridge. She was a nurse for years in a hospital in St. Pete. There’s a scalpel just underneath all of her hippie costume jewelry.
“Yes, Mama,” says Maya. “I’m gonna lay down now.”
“The last time I saw her, she was doing fine.” Marcie sprays air freshener above my head. I reline the garbage can. “But that was about a year ago. I guess a lot can change in a year.” Her calves are steel drums. If I bit them right now, would they break my jaw?
“Do you need me to take out the recycling?” I ask. There is nothing to recycle. I am not a good person.
“Did Maya even grate the cheese?” Alexis’ voice honks in reproach.
“No, honey. No, she didn’t.” Marcie considers the air freshener for a minute. She doesn’t seem to like it very much. “The turkey is going to take a while. I’m going to drink now, Ryan.” She takes a long clear bottle off the shelf. She looks into the liquor like she’s about to bless it.
“I guess this can’t be easy for you,” she says.
“It’s fine. Easy enough.”
“You must think we’re crazy, having a birthday party for Ben.”
“He doesn’t think that, Mama.” Alexis rushes to my theoretical defense.
“Oh, it’s alright. I’d think we were crazy too. You have any kids Ryan?”
“Yeah. My daughter’s name is Lisa. She lives up in Pennsylvania with her grandparents.”
“Not your parents though, right?” Ice rainfall jangles in her glass.
“Then you wouldn’t understand.”
Alexis positions herself by the sink. She slips her hand over my wrist. She smells like the last good day of Winter. “I think Maya’s getting high again.”
“Oh, Christ honey,” Marcie tilts her glass and shivers. “I think he knows that.”
I want to take the beer bottle and smash it against my windpipe. I want to take my dick and drive it into Alexis’s spine. I want to carry Maya out of here on my back like a soldier in an earthquake firefight. I would like to go home now, please.
“Yeah, um…I don’t think she is. She’s really committed to the program. I think she’s even gonna get a sponsor.”
“Well, she needs one.”
“Oh fuck, Alexis! Do you have something to say or not?” Marcie cannonballs the question at her daughter. Alexis looks like a little girl about to perform in her first school play.
“We got high last night, Maya and me.” She delivers the line with a soap opera tremelo.
“Well, that’s just fucking great. On your brother’s birthday you decide to go out and do this. Then you bring, you bring that, you bring her back here.” She slams the spatula against the lip of the sink and it does a wooden cartwheel to the floor.
“Mama, please. It’s not that simple. You don’t know.”
“I don’t know?” Marcie’s face is under her daughter’s chin. She’s cutting off the ring. “Here’s what I don’t know. I don’t know why you allowed that dopesick piece of the sewer into our home. I don’t know what happened to the fifty dollars that was laying on the coffee table last month. I don’t know what your brother ever saw — oh I am so fucking over this. Somebody else stir the noodles.”
“I didn’t take the fifty dollars.” But Marcie’s already marching outside. The door slam is pretty much an afterthought. Alexis wilts in front of me heaving sexy, wet tears into the red sauce.
“Maya’s upstairs?” I ask her.
“It’s like I’m just nothing.” Her left nipple is slicing through the fabric of her shirt. You could hang a coat on it.
“Okay.” I answer myself. “So I’m just going to go upstairs.”
On the hallway leading to Ben’s room there are pictures of him, Rusty and Alexis in Halloween costumes. At Christmas opening up what looks like a fishing rod. And at his First Communion looking as graceful as the early evening. Even then you could see the dark, handsome features that were growing in his face. Maya had always wanted to be taken in by an Italian family. She’d lie in bed and tell me how “none of this would have happened if just one foster family had been Italian. They take care of each other. Plus, the men are fucking gorgeous.” Cooper doesn’t sound like an Italian name to me, but there’s a portrait of a saint on the hallway wall. And above Ben’s bedroom there’s a crucifix covered in paint chips. I’m about to knock when Rusty pours himself through the door.
“Oh, hey buddy. I was just in there checking on her.” He scratches a tar stain from his wrist. His gold chain plops against his heart.
“She doing okay?”
“Sick, bro.” He says knowingly. “Man, she ain’t feeling well. I think dinner might be a little later than it was gonna be.”
“How long were you in there for?”
“You know Maya’s like a sister to me. I just hope you can take care of all that.” He claps my clavicle and bulls past. I can smell beer and cement grit. Every passing minute feels like it doesn’t belong to me. Even when I enter Ben’s room it seems like I’m stealing something. My own shadow doesn’t think I could pay for it.
“Baby.” Maya’s face is puddled with eye bags and runaway mascara. All that pretty nightskin looking flat and crushed under the withdrawal. Ben’s room isn’t a shrine. The Derek Brooks jersey and the Ed Hardy T-shirts are unfolded violently near the bed. There’s a book titled Mysteries of The Pacific Northwest and a dreamcatcher on the desk. The walls have pictures and punctures. Someone has been slamming their fist through the plaster.
“He loved that car.” Maya’s trying to point at a photo of Ben standing next to his 2005 Navigator. The rims are the size of my legs.
“It get seized too?”
“That one. That one.” I try to wipe her mouth with the side of my sleeve.
“Baby, we’re gonna get you some help.”
“Oh shut the fuck up.” Well, it was worth a shot. “He made me feel something. I never had — ”
“I don’t make you feel anything?”
“Oh baby, don’t do that to yourself.” Her voice is low and raw. She’s singing me a lullaby. “I like you. Sometimes I love you, but you don’t make me…you don’t validate me.”
“I’m here aren’t I? I came to your dead ex-boyfriend’s birthday party because I’m — ”
“He’s not my ex.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake Maya. You know those people downstairs? Those people you think are your family? You want to hear what they are saying about you behind your back?”
“I don’t care. I had fourteen families growing up. Fourteen different sets of people who talked shit. Think I can’t take one more?”
“You’re making excuses Maya. That’s what addicts do.”
“I don’t care. Do you know what it’s like never thinking anyone will ever really understand you, and then finally finding the one person who does?”
“Yes,” I say evenly. “I know exactly what that’s like.”
We go on like that for a few minutes. Me trying to bully her into loving me and her looking for another blanket to stop the shivers. I suppose if life was more like an independent student film, this would have all ended with me fucking the shit out of Maya underneath Ben’s 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneer Super Bowl poster. But life’s not like the movies. Even the good ones.
“They know, huh?” She points her eyes downstairs.
“Of course. Why’d you do it? Why baby?”
“Oh fuck off, Ryan. Please. Why? I’m a dope fiend. I got high last night and Alexis was supposed to cop before we got here. But her lazy ass missed the phone call. So, I fucked up and got sick. I’ve been getting high. I just haven’t been telling you.”
“I thought we were in this thing together.”
“We are baby. You know how it is. It’s not the end of the world. I didn’t kill anybody. I got high last night. That’s all.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know. I got high too.” Downstairs I can hear the plates slapping against the dishwasher rack. Feet getting stomped. Other people’s lives are like a pulse.
“I know you did, baby. I can always tell when you’ve been getting high,” she says. “It’s easy to tell. You’re so fucking mean to me the next day. Plus, you never shave. I like you better when you shave.” She kicks herself up on the bed and hands me a goofy look. We both shake our heads at the same time.
“Ryan, you know I love you, but you understand I can’t have you in my life, right? Not if you’re getting high again. I can’t have that.”
“I’ll stop. You’re getting — I’ll stop. I can stop, just don’t.”
“Nobody stops, baby. Nobody can stop this shit. I love you, but nobody stops.”
“I understand, baby.” I’ve always heard about people who can never bring themselves to say “love.” Bullshit. Seems pretty easy to me.
“You know one time we went to Spain together?” She’s looking at the picture again.
“I think you told me.”
“I tell you about getting stuck in that elevator? I’ve never been anywhere before and we’re in this crazy place where nobody speaks English. And I’m just holding on to him everywhere we go. And we get on this raggedy-ass elevator. And there’s an American family on it too. Just us and them and it gets stuck. I was freaking out. I think I have closet-phobia or whatever you call it. But he’s so out there, so calm. Like it was nothing. He just talks to them. Waiting for the repair guy. I’m pissing myself and he’s just chatting with this fat family from Arkansas.”
“What did he talk about?” I put my hand on her thigh and she flushes it away. Just another rain drop falling to the ground.
“Wal-Mart.” Maya giggles. “They talked about Wal-Mart for like three hours.”
I was in the bathroom thinking about how I hadn’t bought a CD in years. About how much I used to love music and how it used to be so fucking important to me. About how in high school I wanted to start a music criticism club and actually got a teacher to sponsor it. But nobody ever came to our meetings. I was thinking about that, when I heard the shot.
Turkeys are no longer harvested by blunderbuss. Farmer Brown doesn’t wander around his acreage with a shotgun firing at the fattest fowl he can find. Instead, the process is more antiseptic. It involves the laser removal of beaks and claws. The birds are thrown in a grinder like chipped wood. Which is why, all things considered, the occasion of a deceased hen opening fire on Mama Cooper seems a little unlikely. Yet, when the paramedics arrived they didn’t seem too surprised. After all, this is Tampa, where we need six policemen in every public library. So birds, even dead ones, may very well pack a clip.
“A stray bullet from an earlier harvest,” Jared the sandy-haired paramedic explained as they were loading Mama Cooper into the ambulance. Kenyatta and I must have had the same perplexed city-boy scowls on our faces, because he bothered to keep talking.
“Sometimes these big companies like Butterball or Hormel contract out to smaller family farms. Guess somebody was shooting around the house and one of the turkeys took one. Or more likely, he ate a bullet that was lying around. Thought it was feed. They’ll gobble up anything.” Jared’s voice had just the right amount of blood and drawl to make me think he may have grown up slaughtering and milking his way through adolescence.
“What are the odds on that shit?” Kenyatta asked.
“Not good.” Jared said as he latched the back of the ambulance. The idea that somewhere on a rural stretch of Indiana farmland there had been a gangsta turkey with a teardrop tattoo and a felony warrant wandering around carrying a burning slug in his wing was both stupid and appropriate. Just like it had for Ben, the harvest had come early. In the end, it’s always the end.
As I had run down the stairs after hearing the shot, my first thought was that Rusty or Tony finally decided it was time for a little step-father to step-son hollow point heart-to-heart. Or, maybe one of Ben’s old gangland enemies had heard about the party and needed some drive-by closure of his own. What I hadn’t expected was the human arena that had formed in the Cooper’s kitchen. A semi-circle of ten or so gaping, gasping, very confused mourners. In the middle was Mama Marcie Cooper riding the floor like a bucking mule. Glass and blood and turkey meat were spraying from every corner. Marcie had a hand on her hip in what resembled a side-plank pose. If it hadn’t been for all the gore I would have thought she was getting a little work in on her obliques before the meal. She was screaming a steady stream of consonants that almost sounded like the glass itself spitting against the oven’s walls.
“Holy shit, fuck man. Mama are you — ”
“Stay back, Rusty.” Marcie — even from the floor with a shard of steel in her high, stair-mill crafted ass — commanded the kitchen as mama’s always have and always will. Later, we would learn that it was not the actual slug but just the casing that had exploded into Mama’s body. She had gone to plunge her meat thermometer into the eagle at precisely the wrong time. The bullet, a .45, would never have been able to pass the oven’s steel. In fact the propulsion from a turkey isn’t anything like a handgun. If Marcie had kept the oven door closed the slug would never have seen the light of day. Perhaps it was that God-given divinity of all southern women to flood their kitchen with no less than fifty smells at once. Possibly, it was just bad luck. But all that was later. For the time being, Mama had been shot by the turkey.
“Holy shit, fuck man,” Rusty repeated. Apparently, this was his new favorite superhero.
“Get back!” Tony swept into the room flailing at the small fire that had begun on the stove with a suit jacket. It wasn’t clear who he was talking to. No one was getting very close.
“Mama, Mama, Mama.” Alexis sobbed into the floor. Her voice muffled inside Kenyatta’s arms as he wrapped her up on the ground. I was stunned by how protective he was. And immediately, I had the rather racist thought that this may not have been the first party Kenyatta attended that ended in gunfire.
“I called them, baby. They are on their way. Just hang on.”
“Oh Christ, Tony! Just call them.”
“I did call them.” And he had. Because a few minutes later the Coopers’ home was swarmed with personnel from TPD, the fire department, and Jared, the knowledgeable paramedic. I have heard that if you call 9-11 and hang up, they will send a representative from each sector. Maybe that was what happened or maybe they were just extending Tony a professional courtesy. Regardless, it was hard to miss the message. This is what emergencies look like. Emergencies go bang.
Keep your dick up.
Ryan Di Mateo
I set the highlighter back on the coffee table. The sulfur smell of bullet and bird has dimmed a little by now. The family: Rusty, Angela, Tony, and Maya followed the ambulance to the Town and Country hospital just off Hillsborough Avenue. Six months ago I had met Maya in that same hospital. Her beautiful Baker-Acted ass crumbled in the metal folding chair. Somehow, the image of her pressing doctors for information and holding hands with the Coopers comforts me. Dope fiends are no different than little kids that way: we love playing grown-up.
Kenyatta and I and a few of the other guests stay to clean. I keep rubbing the table with a wet rag well after I should have been done. We find out the hard way that you can’t vacuum glass. On my knees filling my hands with gizzard and patches from Marcie’s Juicy Couture sweatpants I hear the trilling tones from my pocket.
“Baby,” I say into the phone.
“She gonna be okay. They already talking to the lawyer.” Maya clips her words when she gets excited. I had forgotten that.
“We’re cleaning up here. Me and Kenyatta are straightening everything up — ”
“Oh good, baby. You do that. Kenyatta’s a good guy. You need people like that to be around. He’s focused.”
“He’s a basketball player.”
“They are gonna get so paid. A bullet in the turkey. She could have been killed.” It’s impossible to tell, but she sounds like she’s jumping when she speaks.
“Baby,” I say dumping another round of paper plates. “I don’t want to lose you. I can’t lose you yet. Can you — ”
“You’re not going to lose me Ryan. I’ll only be just a phone call away. You call me any time you need to call me and — ”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Baby, I got to go. The doctor is coming back. Try the potato salad, it’s in the red container. She made it with barbecue sauce. You’ll like it.”
The potato salad isn’t bad. Even though it was made in that Tampa style where the butter is trying to prove that Florida really is the south. Kenyatta has found a bottle of Johnny Walker Black which we sip while sitting on the back of the Coopers’ porch.
“Don’t worry,” he tells me. “Tony ain’t gonna miss this shit. And if he says a word about it, fuck him. They let you drink in that N.A. thing?”
“Nope. But I’m over that. My habit wasn’t all that bad anyway.” Kenyatta looks around for a place to kick his feet up, settling on a pine cone.
“Fuck man. I’m gonna be up in Quad City tomorrow, so this here,” he waddles the brown liquor in the glass, “this gonna be my last hurray. You talk to Maya?”
“She called from the hospital. Seemed excited about suing them.”
“Hell, she should be. We all should be. How else she sound?”
“Not sick anymore. Like she already copped.”
“Alexis get that way too. Like she’ll be sick as hell, but if she knows she’s gonna get good, then the sickness goes away. I tell her that about herself, too. That just proves all that shit is in your head, you know?”
“Yeah,” I sip and decide that I can definitely afford to part with thirty bucks tonight. Maybe forty.
“So is Maya your first?” Kenyatta scratches his neck and leans in to his glass.
“Oh.” I pause to try and convey a sense of Maya just being one in a series of countless other women whose lives have been shamed and wrecked on the shores of my dick. “Who knows?” is the lie I finally settle on.
“Yeah well then you probably know. With them girls every day is Halloween.”
“I mean even with Ben. I don’t want to talk bad about the — ” He stands up. He starts to move to the end of the porch, his eyes beginning to laser their way around the yard. “Shit, man.” He turns without spilling a drip. “Where’s Cody?” The gate on the back fence is open. Nudged just enough so that it could fit a retriever. Possibly he was terrified at the sirens or the shot. Maybe he was just seeking adventure. Either way Cody’s gone.
“Fucking Rusty,” Kenyatta groans. “I know he would leave the back gate open. They couldn’t fit more stupid in that boy if they hollowed out his leg.” But it wasn’t Rusty. It was me. I can remember it now: the memory of my forgetting. My walking out into the Coopers’ driveway with my beer in hand, wondering how long before I could run and hide and smoke. I had left the gate ajar because paying attention was just too much trouble. So busy planning my own escape I hadn’t noticed I had created someone else’s.
“Yes,” I agree. “Rusty is a total fucking dumbass.”
Kenyatta and I arch our way into the street. He takes Webb road heading to Hillsborough, while I make a tender gallop down Jackson Springs behind the apartments. Both of us sharing the silent understanding that while it may be acceptable to drink a man’s liquor, you just can’t lose his dog. No matter how much settlement money may be coming his way.
“Cody, Cody, here Cody!” I yell out. The houses are slouched and slanted. A hobo’s mouth every bit as cracked and gritty as the sidewalks. The rooftops are uneven and the windowsills are marked by the tar droppings. In Town and Country, the places where people live are like the short man at the bar — hunched, angry, ready to fight.
“Honey, are you looking for Cody?” A thick woman in a purple sweatshirt is loading plywood on to the back of her truck. Her face is red and joyful.
“Yes… yes I am. Have you seen him?”
“Of course I’ve seen him,” she says. “Cody is my son.”
“Oh,” I’m embarrassed how much I’m panting. When was the last time I ran? “No, I’m looking for a dog. Have you seen a dog?”
“A dog named Cody?”
“Like my son?” I notice her truck’s bumper sticker: My Child is an Honor Student at Webb Elementary.
“I suppose so. Have you seen him, the dog?”
“Well,” her round cheeks crease with the memory. “There was a dog. I didn’t know what his name was, though. Yellow dog — ”
“That’s him,” I almost collapse from joy. “A retriever.”
“He was heading up to Waters. That was a while ago. You better hurry. That’s a busy road.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You know Cody is also my son’s name.”
The first time Maya saw where I was living she laughed at the black sheets I had pinned over the windows. “Oh baby, that’s some straight dope fiend shit. You’re in recovery now. Those need to come down.” So maybe it’s justice that today she’s left me and I can’t find any darkness to run towards. It’s seven o’clock and the sunshine isn’t even thinking about retreat. “I own this town, bitch,” it says. “I’m everywhere.” It’s reflecting from the bodegas and the ice cream joints; it’s in my mouth when I call Cody’s name. I can even feel it in my cavities and my hairline.
“Cody, Cody!” There’s no sign of a mangled puppy on Waters. But, what would that even look like? Who would stop?
“Cody!” I turn back and try to remember if I took Woodbridge or Murray Hill. I run but the air in my lungs moves like a fat man trying to get off a bus. I taste blood and beer in my throat. Maya told me once that the sunshine just expected a little too much out of you. Seemed to think you were better than you are.
“Cody, Cody!” I yell at the gang tags on the fences.
“Cody, where are you, buddy?” I holler at the pink houses with the gray people inside. Cody, you can’t outrun the sunshine. I’m going to find you. No matter how far you get, it’s really not that far. Nobody gets that far.
“Cody, Cody, Cody!” Did you hide in that place where I used to care about music? Are you hurt, Cody? Did you make it all the way back home? You’re a retriever motherfucker, so retrieve. Where did you go, stupid?
“Cody, Cody. Here, Cody.”
I’ll find you. You’re here. You didn’t go anywhere. It just seems like you’ve run to the end of the world, but you know what? Like they say in the meetings, you’re right where you left yourself. Well so am I, Cody. So be a good boy and just come your little doggy-ass back here to me.
ISAAC BOONE DAVIS lives and works on the road. His work has been published by Writethis.com, Smokelong Quarterly, Fiction 365, P.I.F. Efiction, and The Blue Lake Review.