by Eric Braun
Most times when his dad threw a party Dave bailed out to a park or parking lot with friends, because some of the stuff that happened at those parties embarrassed him. So he'd go find his buddies. One of them might have liquor siphoned from a family stash, or a porno mag to look at, or throwing stars to hurl at car tires and trees. But tonight Dave stuck around. He believed his mom might show up.
He snuck sips of whiskey and hung jackets as the flow of drinkers streamed in. A professor with patches on his elbows, a handlebar-mustachioed mechanic, a dancer in tights and a rhinestone cowboy vest. Loudmouth Bobby with crooked teeth and a Mexican poncho. One guy with a mohawk said Dave had a funny haircut. They carried bottles and cardboard twelve packs into the basement apartment. They smelled of the moldy autumn air and of burnt tobacco and weed. They smiled with red eyes and red cheeks and noses, and their high heels smudged the linoleum and their wafflestompers soiled the shag as they danced and yelled over the music, a web of smoke hanging overhead. Last week Dave had gone to the middle school dance and, although Loudmouth Bobby's daughter Janie had tried to talk him into dancing, he'd felt too big and clumsy. What a fool he'd have been to go out there! But now, tonight, he felt right--the music rubbed against him on every side--and he didn't mind dancing a little.
It wasn't just the music: Dave believed his mom was coming because his dad had started drinking earlier than usual. Singing, polishing the stereo with an old sock. He'd pulled an album off the turntable, holding its edges between his palms, then transferred it to one hand, middle finger at the center hole and thumb at the edge, and slid it into its jacket. He gently shook Electric Ladyland from its sleeve, turned it on, and closed the lid. He nodded his head to the music. So did Dave.
"Your mom's favorite record," Scoot had said, which Dave already knew.
He hadn't seen Lois since spring, since before the sixth grade let out--and even then for only a meal before she was gone again. She'd "tripped over" some money so they ate at Manny's Steakhouse. Each afternoon the rest of the year, as he and Janie spilled from school with the other kids, he scanned the lot for her brown Duster, hoping she might appear again as she had that once, but she had rolled on.
Dave didn't know why his dad was called Scoot. Scoot did not roll. Nowhere Scoot would rather be than right here, surrounded by the cheer and good will of friends. Last week some guy stood in the front window of his apartment and waved wildly as Dave and Scoot locked up their car. The guy was so enthusiastic! Scoot waved wildly right back as they walked closer, until they saw the man was simply washing his window--scrubbing, not waving. Scoot just stood there, disappointed.
Even though Dave expected her, he was jarred when Lois showed.
"Hi, Davey," she said when he opened the door. The skin around her eyes was darker than he remembered. "This here's Trina."
Trina had a c-shaped scar below her eye the size of a fifty-cent piece and was beautiful. She wore a tube top under her leather jacket. "Hi Davey," she said, winking. They trailed wisps of dope smoke as they made their way over to Scoot, who gave Lois a kiss on the cheek. Trina touched his hand. Dave watched them through the fog of the party. His mom smiled easily, his dad constantly. He pushed through the crowd and stood at the edge of their conversation.
They were laughing, absorbed in some story or joke. "We pretty much fucked that town," Lois said. Scoot swigged from a bottle Trina passed him, and her nails were long and red taking it back. He wiped liquor from his chin and blinked in slow motion, and Trina and Lois teased him for how sloshed he already was, and he took in their ribbing with a blushing smile. Dave wanted to make them all laugh more, to say something witty and precocious, and his mom would remark how smart he was becoming. And Trina would wink at him again, or smile. He was sharp-lipped with his friends. At the dance he'd reclined in the bleachers with Lance and Tony--boys who built influence by flashing brass knuckles and rubbers--and picked apart the dancers and teachers, calling out every flaw and self-conscious mannerism. Cool or fool. It was Dave and his razor wit, even more than the tough kids, who decided that.
He dug in his jeans pockets, but the words eluded him. He tried not to look at Trina's breasts.
"Tunes!" someone yelled. An album had ended.
"Blood!" Lois said, feigning a seizure. "Water! Air!"
"Dad, can I be in charge of music?"
Scoot nodded, swaying slightly. His son was nearly as tall as him. "Put the records back in their goddamn jackets," he said. "I don't want any sitting out."
The stereo system was a monolithic piece of furniture: cherrywood, as wide as a love seat. Speakers were built into the front, dials and switches and lights lay under the heavy lid--soft light like magic lit the corner of the room when it was open. Rows of records were lined upright on three brick-and-plywood shelves.
Dave walked his fingers through the albums, holding one up to examine it in the stereo's glow. He put on the Stones first, and someone said, "Nice choice!" He put on the Ramones, the Kinks, Lou Reed. He played Tower of Power and somebody said, "Turn that shit off," and somebody else said, "Do not turn that off! I forbid you to turn that off." His hands were as big as his dad's, and he handled the records the same way his dad did, thumb at the edge, middle finger in the hole, as women and men all around him hollered and laughed at their jokes and sang along with the songs. Some perspired, while others wore their parkas inside. Heavy rhythms thumped through the apartment, and Lois even danced with Dave, arms in the air.
She said, "Put on that new Zeppelin I saw," and Dave darted off to find In Through the Out Door in the stack. He lifted the Grateful Dead off the turntable and balanced Zeppelin on the tip of the spindle, sliding the L-shaped holder on top of it. He pulled back the start lever and the turntable spun, the record slipped down the spindle onto the mat, and the arm swung over the edge.
The needle scratched out a split second of static then settled into its groove, and the first song began with a whining note, then crashing rock 'n' roll. The party, like a scratched album, seemed to skip ahead: merely happy one second, now ecstatic. People nodded along, bounced on the balls of their feet, drank their cans of beer. The music breathed into them, their noses and mouths, down their throats and into their lungs, their blood, it gushed through their limbs and soaked out through their pores. Dave stayed where he was, afraid he could shatter the magic if he moved or spoke or did anything a kid could do. Lois danced. He watched her, and then he didn't. He was twelve years old.
Minutes later a piano line bounced out of the speakers and Trina took off her jacket, dancing loose and jangly. She closed her eyes. She oiled her hips from side to side, slipped a finger under the tube top, and moved it. The singer sang, "Like a star that can't wait for the night." Dave could see the round bottom of one breast. He cut his eyes around the room--was anyone else catching this?
The tube top was off, she held it on her fingertip for a second, spun it twice, then let it fall to the ground. Everyone cheered, but not Dave. Her dance and aggressive smile seemed dangerous. He wanted to protect her from all these people watching, but at the same time he noticed his penis was hard, pressing against his jeans.
Trina kept dancing and stripping, slowly, now one shoe, now the other. Stockings, skirt. Down to tiny white underwear. She shimmied with her hands above her head, a thin gold bracelet on her wrist catching the light. And then the song ended and Dave guessed she got embarrassed because she dressed pretty quick. And everyone started talking again, just talking and drinking. Trina fiddled with a button on her skirt. Dave forgot to flip the record, or change it, and Lois yelled, "Tunes, god damn it!"
He was on the couch, having nodded off under the weight of alcohol, when Lois smoothed his forehead. "You should go to bed," she said, and she sounded like a mother, like a bedtime story.
The party had thinned. The vague static from before had crystalized into a few ruddy voices. "Hi Mom." He smiled weakly.
He sat up. His mouth tasted like wet bread. In the kitchen Loudmouth Bobby was talking about great places to camp, places Dave and Scoot had gone with Bobby and Janie many times, where you could back your car up to the fire ring and sit on big green coolers of beer and melt marshmallows.
"Come on, I'll tuck you in," Lois said, snaking an arm around his waist as he stood. Together they walked down the hall.
Trina and the mohawk guy stood in front of the bathroom, looking in. It smelled like a sack of rotten squirrels, and when Dave peered over their shoulders he saw his dad passed out on the linoleum with his pants around his ankles. Shit was streaked across the side of the tub. Across the floor, and Scoot's pants, his lower legs, his butt. His head and matted hair lay in a pool of puke. Puke floated in the toilet, and the toilet seat dripped puke onto his neck.
"What happened?" Dave said.
Trina spoke up. "We figure he was taking a shit--right?--then he realized he was going to ralph. So he got down on his knees and started puking in the toilet, then started, you know, shitting."
"Then I guess he passed out."
"Is he okay?"
Lois waved a hand extravagantly in front of her face. "Hoo-wee!" More people had gathered around. "Wish I had my camera," Lois said.
"That would be good," said Trina.
People started to laugh but stopped when Dave turned. Everyone waited. He knew that if he laughed, the party would go on. They would come back again and they would always laugh. If he didn't laugh then they couldn't either, and the party would break up. He imagined the clattering of cans as Loudmouth Bobby dragged a plastic bag around, collecting trash like he always did after Scoot's parties.
And so Dave laughed. When he did, everyone let loose.
"That's a lot of shit," someone said.
"The Duke of Hurl," added Dave. People were really laughing now. Lois wiped a tear from her eye.
Finally Trina covered her nose. "God, shut the door." Someone rattled ice in a glass. Someone else cleared his throat. People began to walk toward the living room.
In the kitchen Dave soaked a bandana with peppermint schnapps, grabbed a plastic trash bag, and headed back to the bathroom. He tied the bandana around his nose and mouth and walked in. Even though the smell wouldn't be able to escape, he shut the door. He didn't want Trina to see him.
Scoot had puked before, but this was pretty bad. When they camped, Scoot and Bobby drank a case of beer, smoked, and passed a bottle of whiskey. And sometimes he puked but he always put out the fire before bed and got up early and cooked eggs in the black pan and took Dave fishing in the river.
"Dad," he said, and rolled him onto his back. Scoot snorted and coughed. "Dad, wake up!" He slapped him lightly but there was no response, so he went to work pulling off the shit-caked tennis shoes. One shoe, the other shoe, the slick socks. Then the pants. And the underwear from his ankles. He looked at his dad's penis, the size of it compared to his own, the gray scar circling it, just like his own. The hair around the top and fuzzing the balls.
Shit caked up under his fingernails and he began to gag, yanking off the bandana just in time to throw up in the toilet.
He splashed Scoot with water until he stirred a little and Dave could talk him into lifting a leg over the tub wall. Then he grabbed Scoot's ankle and neck and pulled him in. "I'll tell you one thing's for sure," he said, grunting, but that was it. Scoot sat as the warm water sprayed him and Dave soaped him up and scrubbed him with a washcloth. He pushed him forward and pulled his arms over the side so he could scour his butthole. Shit clumped in the hairs. Then, while Scoot slept on the side of the tub, Dave cleaned the bathroom with a soapy sponge, tied up the dirty clothes in the trash bag, and carried it to his dad's room. He opened the window and tossed it into the alley.
Dave showered, dressed, and helped Scoot stumble gratefully to his bed.
In the kitchen only Lois, Trina, and Mohawk were left. "Where'd everyone go?"
"You want a beer or something?" Lois said. She blew smoke and stared into the swirls.
Dave sat on the scratchy plaid couch and opened the can. His forearms and hands were scrubbed red. He looked at the black-and-white TV on its stack of milk crates, and at the kitchen table with its glistening menagerie of liquor bottles and glasses of various shapes and sizes, including a fast-food giveaway glass with Darth Vader's face on it. An orange-and-gold ice bucket was on the table too, tiny tongs hanging from the handle. Scoot talked sometimes about days long ago, when Dave was two and three years old. The three of them lived in a house with big, sun-filled windows. But Dave could not remember those days. His world seemed always to have been this, his dad's dark apartment. "Your mom and I flipped a coin," Scoot joked, "and I won." He meant he got Dave, but Dave knew it was never a contest. Still, he thought about those windows sometimes.
Mohawk spat into a beer bottle. "Lois."
Lois just blew smoke. She was drunk.
"You want my help, ladies, let's get this fucking show on the road."
Trina smiled at Dave. Then she looked at the floor. "Come on."
She took his hand. "Come on."
"Have fun," Lois said.
"Go easy on her," said Mohawk.
Trina led him to his room. He flipped on the light but she flipped it back off. "Sit down," she said.
"Okay," Dave croaked. His tongue was a leather glove.
They were quiet on the bed together. "Nice room," she said after a while.
Dave nodded. Her fingernails were bright red even in the dark. He examined his own nails. He sniffed them for shit.
"Did you like that dance I did?"
"I don't know."
"I think that song has some kind of power over me. I can't hear it without--well, you saw."
"Yeah." Something fell, or someone did--sounded like it anyway--out in the living room.
Trina said, "It's a beautiful song."
She said, "Do you think I'm beautiful?" She was looking at the door.
"I don't know."
"You don't know."
"I mean--yes." His penis was hard again.
"You're very sweet." She touched his shoulder. "And big. How tall are you?"
"I don't know."
"Well, big anyway. Such a big boy."
"Five-nine, I think."
"Man, I should say."
"Well," she said, "do you want to kiss me first?"
"You could kiss me, if you want."
She leaned close to him. Her lips were cool and smooth as orange wedges. They pulled on his for perhaps one second, but in that time they pulled on his heart, too, lifted it to a higher place inside him, from which it would never come down again. It banged and thumped like rock 'n' roll against his top ribs.
She put a hand on his crotch and with her fingertips felt his penis. "Goodness," she said. "I see you're all ready." She slid off the bed and to her knees. Slipped her fingers into the top of his sweat pants and gently pulled them to his ankles. He shifted his buttocks to help her. "Just relax, honey."
The flesh of her fingers on him, bare fingers, made him yelp softly. He seemed to have no control over his body, his mind, anything.
Her mouth was on him. They locked eyes and then she looked down. Dave had to pee. A desperate dam of pee, it had to come out. He held his breath and tried not to let it go as her head moved up and down. He looked at the Star Wars figures on his dresser.
After a few seconds he said, "Stop," and her head grew still. "Please," he said, and she let him go. But she didn't look up. She wiped her mouth with the back of a hand, the same way Scoot had after drinking from her liquor bottle. She'd worn her jacket into the room.
"Your mom's already gone," she said finally, standing up.
He lay back in bed and pulled the blankets up over him. The noises of Trina gathering her bag, then closing the door behind her. He shut his eyes and thought about crying, but swallowed as hard as he could instead. Light from the living room glowed under his door, but the stillness told him nobody was there. He didn't have to pee any more. Someone cackled in the parking lot outside his window, and an engine turned over, and headlights filled up the blinds near the ceiling and slid across the football pennants on his wall. After more than an hour he got up to turn off the lights in the apartment.
He noticed right away when he opened the door--a conspicuous spot where the gold wallpaper once could not be seen but now could. He realized he'd felt the emptiness even when Trina left his room. The stereo's rich, sturdy wood, its precise needles and reliable levers and buttons, its magic light like the light of possibilities--all were gone. Four round holes remained deep in the shag, like weary peepholes to a world even lower and darker than this one. Dave stared back at them. He thought of the meannest thing Scoot had ever said about Lois: he'd called her a whore.
He'd said other things, too, like, She has left us, Davey, and she'd do it again. But we'd take her back anyway. And Dave knew it was true: they would take her back. Even now, if given the chance, they would take her back.
He turned out the lights and threw the deadbolt, though it seemed there was little left to take from this place, and went back to bed. He pulled the blanket between his knees and thought about everyone laughing in the bathroom. What else could he have done? What else could he have said? Rolling onto his stomach, he saw a tube of lipstick nestled in the tangly rug and picked it up. He held it in his palm. He took off the lid and screwed up the red--like her nails--and screwed it back down. He put the cap on and tossed it onto a shelf next to the Star Wars guys.