Canadian Coins  |  Gary Every















             



             The table resembled a Medieval torture device. It was known as a four-point restraining table, and it came in handy in a hospital emergency room. In time, I would become used to such devices, but this story took place while I was still doing my residency, when I was new to the crazy chaos of the emergency room. It came as quite a shock when I saw my first human being restrained inside the table. There were fixed points for securing every arm and leg to the table in a spread-eagle pose. There were waist straps for cinching down the torso and bands to further lash the limbs tight. Worst of all, was the head clamp, a padded metal band that could be tightened until the unfortunate person’s skull was trapped against the table without even being able to turn from side to side. The first person I ever saw imprisoned on the four-point restraining table was Herman.
             Herman was a tiny, tiny human being; old and toothless. He couldn’t have been more than five-foot-four inches tall and a hundred-ten pounds. His black skin sagged. Herman’s face was sunken in, and all his teeth were missing from years of smoking crack. Surviving as a homeless man in the ghettos of Detroit must have been more of a horror than I can possibly imagine. Herman had made an occupation of being beaten, raped, robbed, and victimized. Being strapped tightly to a table was just another example of that victimization. Still, when I saw Herman for the first time, he was smiling that big toothless smile from ear to ear—strapped down flat on his back, secure and motionless.
             Herman was so small that every single strap had to be stretched as tight as it would cinch in order to pin his skinny torso to the table. His meatless arms had to be stretched as far as he could reach, in order to be secured to the posts—straps locking his wrists. His feet and ankles were wrapped and double wrapped, just in case he wanted to kick someone with those toothpicks he called legs. And of course, the tiny, tiny man had an itty-bitty skull, and that meant the head clamp was tightened to the fullest capacity. As I walked into the ER for my third day of residency, there was tiny little Herman, pinned down on the four-point restraining table, and the orderly was tightening the head clamp. It looked like they were turning screws into his brain.
             The whole scene was so horrific that I could not help but look—the way you feel compelled to stare at a traffic accident. Without meaning to, I made eye contact. That was when I looked into Herman’s big, beautiful eyes. He stared back, and we locked gazes for a moment, sizing each other up. Then, I remembered the horror of the restraining table, and I tried to walk away ...
             ... But it was too late.
             “Hey Doc!” Herman cried out, in a squeaky voice that fit his tiny body. “You gotta help me.”
             There were three large orderlies beside the four-point restraining table, each of them looking large enough to handle tiny little Herman without breaking a sweat. The table hardly seemed necessary.
             “You gotta help me,” he pleaded.
             He was right. I did have to help him. I had taken an oath.
             One of the orderlies tried to warn me. “Careful, Doc. This guy could flip out at any moment.”
             “It’s true,” Herman agreed. I am sure he would have shrugged, but the restraining table held him too tightly.
             “Well, then, how can I help you?” I asked.
             “My nose itches.”
             I reached out a fingernail and softly scratched his nose. It felt like something you would do for a puppy—scratch him on the tip of the nose. That was exactly what it felt like, scratching the nose of a puppy. As soon as I finished, Herman’s perpetual smile stretched far wider than I would have thought humanly possible. I would learn that being toothless only made Herman’s smile more flexible. The way he looked at me reminded me of that bumper sticker: “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” I wanted to be the type of doctor I saw reflected in Herman’s big eyes, filled to the brim with loving kindness and generosity.
             “Better?” I asked.
             “Thanks, Doc.”
             I turned to walk away, my third day as a resident, more determined than ever to become all the healer I could be.


♥♥♥


             Nights in the emergency room were always draining. Sick babies, the mentally ill, and people too clumsy to be working in restaurants, filled the lobby. There were others who sat there and waited: people who were bleeding, people who had worked themselves up into being scared over nothing, and couples who should have never been together. After helping put seventeen stitches into the arms of a little boy, I strolled through the lobby to get a candy bar from the vending machine. Herman was still being held on the restraining table.
             I was stunned. It had been nearly twelve hours. Herman looked pretty relaxed. I walked over to make small talk.
             “How you doing?”
             “Beautiful day,” Herman replied.
             Those words seemed out of place coming from the mouth of a tiny little man strapped to a giant table so tightly that he couldn’t even wiggle.
             “Look, I’m new around here,” I offered. “I could use a few friends.”
             Herman broke out that ear-to-ear grin. “I’ll be your friend.”
             “Is there anything that I can get you, buddy? A bite of my candy bar? Another scratch on the nose?”
             “It sure would be nice to be able to scratch my own nose.”
             “I’m not sure if I can let you do that,” I returned.
             “Sure you can,” Herman said. “You’re my friend.”
             Then he looked at me with those big eyes, and I wanted desperately to be the doctor that I saw reflected there. I started to undo one of the arm straps.
             One of the orderlies flew across the room. “I wouldn’t do that,” the orderly said in a gruff voice.
             I looked at Herman to tell him no, and all I could see were those puppy-dog eyes.
             “Please,” he pleaded.
             I took another look at Herman and that tiny, emaciated, toothless frame and reckoned … what kind of danger could he really pose?
             “I’m the doctor,” I pulled rank. The orderly stormed off in a huff. I undid one arm strap and the accompanying armbands.
             Herman scratched his nose. He scratched and scratched, a little too fervently for my tastes. I grabbed his wrist and moved it gently aside before he began to bleed.
             “Thanks, Doc. That was starting to hurt.”
             “No problem, buddy.”
             “How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
             “Because we’re friends.”
             Herman smiled. “Do you think, Doc … that you could loosen this head thing so I could look around? When I’m here, I like to look around and watch television. I hardly ever get to watch television. I also like to people watch. You can learn a lot by people watching.”
             It seemed like little enough to ask. What damage could it really cause? It was the only human thing for a healer to do. I left one arm free and unstrapped his head so that Herman could do some people watching.
             I was the one who learned the lesson.


♥♥♥


             A gunshot wound was rolled into the ER and things were being busily prepped for surgery. The usual emergency room chaos erupted in full conflagration. I flew into action, trying to stay calm, to assess the situation accurately and take a series of steps in an attempt to improve it. I fought down the panic. I fought down the adrenaline. I assisted in the surgery, and two and a half hours later I emerged, exhausted, fatigued, bewildered, and splattered with blood. I also had the urge for another candy bar.
             As I strolled toward the vending machines in the lobby, there was a tremendous commotion. Suddenly, I remembered Herman, and I burst through the doors into the lobby.
             There, on the restraining table, were Herman’s clothes, but no Herman. He was certainly still in the house. He was the small, skinny, naked black man being chased by the orderlies. Herman was much faster than he looked. He leaped over chairs and scrambled down the aisles with fancy footwork that would have made “Crazy Legs” Hirsch envious. The orderlies pursued with fervent energy, but Herman was too fast and nimble for them. A spin, a dodge, a leap, a duck, and once again, Herman narrowly avoided capture. The orderlies grunted and cursed as Herman just barely eluded their grasp again and again. Herman jumped over the rows of seats as his tiny penis flapped in the breeze.
             The frightened patients and family waiting in the lobby flattened themselves against the wall, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the psychotic runaway. The orderlies were tiring, gasping for breath. Herman’s eyes grew wider and wider. The orderlies argued amongst themselves, as Herman eluded this trap and that. The naked black man leaped over more chairs and spun away, just as the cops arrived with whistles shrieking.
             That was when one of the orderlies pointed a finger directly at me. “It was his idea to unstrap the patient!”
             I can’t even begin to describe what an awkward, uncomfortable moment it was when every eye in the emergency room lobby turned to look at me. The frightened people plastered up against the wall looked at me in dumbfounded amazement. The cops stared at me like I was stupid, and the orderlies just glared. Only Herman was looking at me with a smile on his face. Everything paused for just an instant so everyone could stare at me. I didn’t know what to say or do.
             Herman was the first to react.
             He turned and ran, moving his little naked behind as fast as he could toward the exit. No one responded quickly enough to slow Herman down. He cut left to avoid an old woman in a wheelchair and then sprinted down field. The orderlies, the police, and I all followed. As soon as he burst past the double glass doors, stepping outside into open sunlight, he raised his hands above his head like a touchdown, and he broke into a slow homerun trot. All traffic stopped to stare at the celebrating naked black man.
             We followed in hot pursuit. As soon as we exited, Herman took off like he was an Olympic track star. Once his feet left the pavement of hospital sidewalk, the orderlies stopped chasing him. Their responsibilities ended right there, but the cops continued the chase. Feeling guilty, I kept running. Herman kept running, too, waving his arms wildly above his head and covering ground quickly. The cops were losing ground. Out of breath, I was falling behind the cops. The scene was alive with screaming sirens as more squad cars could be heard approaching. Herman would have surely escaped if it had not been for what happened next.
             Herman sprinted across an intersection as cars swerved and brakes squealed. He narrowly escaped death and reached a street corner where a bank was located. Running up to a long line of cars waiting for the drive-up ATM, he opened the door of the last car and hopped inside.
             The suburban soccer mom inside the last car handled events quite well. It is not every day that a toothless, naked black man suddenly hops inside your car while you are waiting for the bank machine. The cops on the scene said Herman and the woman were just talking pleasantly when help arrived. The police pulled Herman from the car and subdued him, sprawling him face down on the sidewalk. There is no real need to frisk a naked man, but they did it anyway. Herman never struggled. He never stopped smiling, either.
             By the time I arrived, breathless and late, the lady in the car was already on her phone, telling friends and family about her adventure. The cops were raising Herman to his feet and had wrapped him in a blanket for the sake of public decency.
             “Are you taking him straight to jail?” I asked a police officer.
             “Actually, we will take him back to the hospital. They have a four-point restraining table they can strap him to. I wonder why he wasn’t already in one?”
             “Beats me,” I lied.
             As the cops marched Herman away, he turned and made eye contact with me.
             “Hey, Doc,” Herman shouted, “I need your help.”
             I hesitated, considering the problems that helping Herman had already caused.
             “For a buddy?” he added.
             “Of course.” I never did learn how to say no to Herman’s eyes.
             “Here. Hold this,” Herman said. “I ain’t got no pockets.”
             Naked people usually don’t have pockets. Herman handed me 37 cents. “Where did you get this?”
             “The nice lady gave me money for a cup of coffee. I think she likes me.”


♥♥♥


             This particular hospital is famous for psychos and prisoners. Turned out Herman was both. It all came out during the hospital interview. As part of my punishment for setting Herman free, I was forced to write the hospital incident report. Besides, everybody else on staff had already interviewed Herman.
             There was a standard incident interview form with a list of suggested questions. “Do you hear voices?” I asked.
             “Sure all the time,” Herman replied. “Especially when I watch television. Sometimes, I hear so many voices when I watch television that it is hard to follow the program. Then, it gets scary, and I have to turn away.”
             I took notes furiously.
             “How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
             “I’m not rich, Herman, and I’m just learning to be a doctor.”
             “Sure are nice, though.”
             “I think,” I said, “that I am supposed to ask the questions here.” He looked at me with those big eyes, waiting for the next question. I looked at the list. “Can you read minds?”
             “Sure, I can read minds.”
             I asked a question that departed from the list: “Can you read my mind?”
             “Of course not.”
             “Why not?”
             “You’re God.”



♥♥♥


             The orderly approached me with a wicked smile on his face. I knew I was in trouble.
             “It’s about Herman,” he said.
             Ever since the incident where I had unwittingly aided Herman’s escape, every time a problem came up with him, it became my problem. I was a Herman specialist. I did not mind. As the months had passed, this small, homeless man turned out to be the sweetest, gentlest human being I had ever met. Except he really wasn’t homeless anymore. Herman’s schizophrenia was so acute that we could not release him. He was right; I had to try and help him.
             “What is the problem?” I asked.
             “Herman is putting something up his butt. We think it’s money.”
             “Money won’t hurt him.”
             “We need to do a rectal examination and make sure he is not putting something up his butt that will injure.” The orderly handed me a box of rubber gloves. “You’re the doctor.”
             It was true that I did not want Herman to injure himself. It was also true that, as a medical technician, I was supposed to treat body functions as just a natural part of biological mechanics. All that aside, sticking your hand up somebody’s ass is a dirty, smelly job. Even with a rubber glove. Even with a box of rubber gloves.
             Smell the glove. No, I am serious, because there is no way I can describe with mere words the awful stench that my examination of Herman’s rectum released. It was as if Herman’s asshole were a portal to an alternate universe filled with nothing but stink spirits, and my rubber glove had unwittingly opened a door to this other dimension. Even after all these years, those smells sometimes still haunt my nightmares. My latex-enclosed fingers searched all over the inside of Herman’s body, but we found nothing. It did not help my demeanor any that all through the examination, Herman wore a great big smile. I declared the examination finished and threw my rubber gloves in the incinerator trash.
             “Herman,” I said, “the orderlies think you are stuffing something up your butt.”
             “Yes, sir, I am,” Herman declared proudly.
             “The orderlies think it is money.”
             “That’s right, Doc. I hide the money where no one can find it, no matter how many times they rob me.”
             “Herman ...” I pondered my next statement. “Think of poor George Washington, the first president of the United States, just sitting there on the surface of a quarter, and suddenly, he finds himself stuffed up where the sun don’t shine.”
             “You know, Doc, I am not surprised that it is a kind man like you who brought up the very same question that I have been pondering for quite some time. ’Cause, you see, on that quarter, Mr. Washington has a nose, and I have always wondered if he can smell it when I fart.”
             “Trust me, Herman; he can smell it.” I was speaking from personal experience.
             “In that case, I feel awful bad, not just for Mr. Washington, but for Thomas Jefferson, too. Not so much for that little tiny dude with the glasses. He looks like a weasel.”
             “Herman, no one is going to rob you in the hospital.”
             “I know, Doc. You wouldn’t let them. But what happens if I want to buy a cup of coffee?”
             “In the hospital, you can drink all the coffee you want for free.”
             “That’s awful nice of you, Doc.”
             “Don’t you think that putting money up your butt is an awful thing to do to George Washington?”
             Herman shrugged. “I have tried putting Canadian coins up there, but they always keep falling right back out.”
             I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The things they never teach you in medical school. Apparently, just like vending machines, some human beings don’t accept Canadian coins.


♥♥♥


             As the months passed and my residency was nearing its end, Herman began to make remarkable improvements. A lot of the cure was due to finding the right combination of medicines to battle his schizophrenia. A lot of it just seemed to be Herman’s unwavering belief that life was going to get better.
             He had told me horror stories of his life on the streets of Detroit. I had never gone to bed hungry, wondering where I would find food the next day, but Herman had. He had been forced to sleep outdoors during Michigan blizzards. The trick, he said, was to wait for a car to get parked and sleep directly beneath the still-warm engine. Herman had been beaten, robbed, and raped so many times that he had come to regard some of the more regular attackers as his friends. Other memories were so terrible that they were wrapped in shrouds of mental delusion. He would apologize for not remembering reality, and I used to reassure him that we were both probably better off.
             Herman knew that I had no family in Detroit, and since we were friends, he invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him at the hospital. The last thing I wanted to do was spend a rare day off at work—and a holiday, at that. But the truth was that I had no other plans, no place to go, and no other nearby friends. Just Herman.
             Besides, the only nurse who ever flirted back with me was working on Thanksgiving. So there I was, on Thanksgiving, sitting and watching television in Herman’s favorite television-watching place: the emergency room lobby. We were watching The Sound of Music, and Herman wept after almost every song.
             “Are you remembering to take your medications?”
             He nodded as he shuddered with tears. “Sure wish I had grown up like that.” He pointed at the singing nanny. “It makes me so happy that someone does.”
             “Do you still hear voices from the television?”
             “Just the ones that are singing.”
             “Can you still read minds?”
             “Not since you fixed me, Doc, but I know what you’re thinking.”
             “Really?”
             “Yeah. You’re horny.”
             I laughed. “You sure?”
             “Doc, every time that nurse over there walks into the room, you just stare and stare. I never thought about it before, but you must be awful lonely without a girlfriend.”
             “Yeah, you’re right.”
             “How about if you let me out, and I go back down to the ghetto and see if I can get you a girlfriend. I know lots of real nice girls down there, and they are all looking for boyfriends. A rich doctor like you—you could probably afford a whole lot of them all at once.”
             I laughed and tried to imagine what sort of woman a toothless, homeless crack addict could set me up with and what she might look like. I stood up. “Herman, I’m going to grab a drink. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
             He nodded enthusiastically. I got up from the chair and paused to flirt with my favorite nurse. When I returned with the coffee, Herman smiled from ear to ear.
             “You sure are nice to me, Doc.”


♥♥♥


             I’ll never forget the last time I saw Herman. He came in to visit me during my last day of residency. That is right; Herman came in to the hospital. His cure was rapid and hopefully effective. He had graduated to living in a halfway house. Life seemed good, and that perpetual smile grew even bigger, if that was possible.
             I, on the other hand, looked like crap. Not only was I exhausted from the long hours of residency, but I was also hungover. One of my brothers had arrived to help celebrate the end of my residency. We had jumped the gun a little early and partied the night before by crossing the international border and barhopping in Windsor. Still, it was my last day of residency and life was good.
             Herman arrived in the last minutes of the shift. I was walking toward the door.
             “How are you doing, Doc?” He asked, with that incredibly big smile.
             “Good! Good.”
             “No offense, Doc, but you look like you might be lying. You look like death warmed over.”
             I chuckled. It was probably true. “You, on the other hand, look wonderful.”
             “Yes, I do,” Herman replied, smiling so big that I could actually see a tooth way in the back that hadn’t fallen out yet.
             There followed an awkward moment where neither one of us knew what to say. The awkward moment grew into a pregnant pause. So, I did what seemed appropriate.
             I stepped forward and gave that tiny, tiny human being a great big bear hug. I squeezed him hard, and it looked like Herman was about to cry. Seeing those big eyes moisten was more than I could bear. I felt myself tear up, and before I could embarrass myself, I started toward the door.
             “Remember to stay healthy,” I said, as I started to cry.
             “Hey, Doc!” Herman called. “Can I have some spare change for a cup of coffee?”
             All at once, I realized what Herman meant when he asked that question. It was why he had asked the woman in the car for spare change. It was why he shoved money up his butt. It must have been a habit from panhandling during his homeless days. When someone gave him spare change for a cup of coffee, it meant that someone liked him; it was a positive affirmation from the universe. If he had coffee money jingling in his pockets, it meant that everything was safe and sound. Of course I had money for coffee.
             I fumbled around in my pants pockets before I realized that all I had on me was the spare change I had picked up the day before in Windsor. Herman didn’t accept Canadian money, or at least, he didn’t back when he was ill; maybe things were different now that he was better. I gave it a try and tossed him a coin.
             Herman caught the shiny brass coin. “Thanks, Doc. How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
             Suddenly, I remembered that smelly, smelly rectal exam, and the mischievous parts of me thirsted for revenge.
             “Herman,” I explained patiently, “you’re not black ...” His jaw dropped in amazement. “... but I am.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it.
             Herman’s toothless face imploded in confusion and doubt. He put his hand to his temple, massaging his forehead, the way he used to when he was hearing voices. His lower lip quivered and trembled as he struggled to get the next words out: “B-b-b-but you’re God.”
             “No, I’m not, Herman,” I soothed. “You are.”
             His face broke out in that big, beautiful smile, and his eyes shone with that special radiance that was unique to Herman. “You’re right … I am God.” He looked at the Canadian coin I had tossed him and muttered, “Pretty bird,” before sliding the coin into his pocket.
             Naturally, it was a loon.
             “Bye, Herman.”
             “Hey, Doc …” Herman cried out the last words he would ever say to me, “Hey, Doc, you’re cured.”
             Then, I walked out the door, ready to be all the healer I could be.


♥ End ♥



Gary Every is the author of nine books, including Shadow of the Ohshad, a compilation of the best of his award-winning newspaper columns concerning Southwestern history, folklore, Native Americans, and the environment. His science fiction novella, The Saint and the Robot, regarding Medieval legend the author uncovered about Thomas Aquinas, is also available from Amazon. [Author photo by and © William Cole; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

Above All Men, a new novel by Eric Shonkwiler, available for pre-order from MG Press. Don’t miss the author critics are saying, “takes the world on his own terms, and wrestles it to the ground.” (Tom Lutz, The Los Angeles Review of Books).
         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
         Reserve your copy in any format for $1 today, and get 20% off the cover price upon March 2014 release.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Fast Times on the Copenhagen Flats  |  Paul Corman-Roberts















             



             Dad pulls up in front of Currier’s house, an ancient, ramshackle building just off Petersen’s dairy on the old Copenhagen Road. Its windows are dark, and I can’t tell if they’re covered or open. This is the site of my first big high-school party, perched on the edge of the Eel River Valley flood plain, overlooking the river’s mouth. It doesn’t look as though anything has happened here in the past ten years. It doesn’t look as if anything is happening in the next ten years.
             The old man looks at me puzzled, seemingly thinking (like me) that there has to be some kind of mistake, or that I’m even pulling a fast one on him somehow, as if I could. Surely he’s looking for any excuse to keep me from hanging out with my friends.
             That would be just my luck. At the age of sixteen, I finally convinced the old man to let me attend an event sure to be a full-on kegger. At least, that’s how Rob and Currier were selling it earlier in the week. And if there’s a kegger, then surely some of the saucier daughters of the local township’s tightly sealed gentry will come on out for a little unrestrained hedonism … right?


♥♥♥


             “Come on, let’s see what’s shakin’,” I tell Rob.
             He shuffles out of the backseat of our ’77 Impala station wagon. We hike up creaky wooden steps to the front door and pound on its eroding frame. I’m getting nervous standing there with my father looking on. Rob knocks again, and suddenly, a shaggy mop of blond, unkempt hair with bleary eyes appears.
             “Hey guys,” Currier croaks, his whipcord torso exposed. “Sorry. Catchin’ some shut eye.” He pokes his head out the door and sees my dad in the car, who waits to make sure everything is “legit.” “Hey, Mike. How’s it going?” Currier barks.
             “Not too bad, James. You guys try not to scare too many cows tonight.”
             “Oh, yeah, they’re scared,” Currier laughs in his gravelly voice. It’s so odd to hear this guy, a schoolmate—hell, a buddy who’s only one year older than I—being more familiar with my dad than I feel I have any right to be. Nobody I know calls this guy James. But Currier and my dad have worked together on more than a few of the Eel River dairy farms for more than five years, after all. They see each other on the job throughout the week, working the fields and swapping out mechanic repair deals. See, Currier is a senior at Fortuna High during weekdays, and works on the farm to help support his family the rest of the time, more or less. This is a life he’s probably going to inherit. The same life my own father, an aging hippie, has chosen. The life my father insists he won’t see his own son taking on. I’m supposed to be a full-time junior at Fortuna High, full-time running down that college scholarship—in his eyes, anyway.
             “So, who else is comin’?” Rob asks.
             “Dunno,” Currier mumbles, still not awake. “Lemme think … I told Sparling, Gallagher, Penrod, and Mills. And I told them to tell their girlfriends and their friends that we were havin’ a party. You guys got any money?”
             Rob has six bucks. I have three dollars and thirty-two cents, but none of us is old enough to buy booze. Neither are any of the other guys who have been invited. How did we suppose this was actually going to happen? If Joe Penrod shows up, maybe his older brother, Jason, can hook us up with some beer.
             Currier heads off to his parent’s room to see if he can find a joint. Rob and I take our spots on a dingy, puke-orange couch barely clinging to what upholstery is left. I can see the crease forming in Rob’s forehead. There’s still an hour of daylight out, sure, but it’s already seven at night, and generally a real high-school party out here in the boonies is supposed to be kicking in by this point … right?
             Currier comes back chuckling. “They took everything with them out to the lake this weekend. I don’t think their room’s been that clean since they moved in.”
             He tells us all he’s got are cigarettes. Rob and I each take one, even though we don’t smoke cigs. What else are we supposed to do? The problem is we don’t have much in common with this guy whose hospitality is sincere, even if it’s not exactly what we imagine for our first unsupervised high-school party.
             The truth is we’re all losers here. Rob and I dream of mastering guitars and drums and escaping Humboldt County via our heavy metal band into a universe of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. Currier could give a shit, and not much else. He wants to play Waylon Jennings on a boombox nearly one-third encrusted with cow shit. Rob and I push for Van Halen, in vain.
             By the time Waylon is done playing through the cassette twice and the cigarette pack is nearly done, it is still just the three of us sitting around bullshitting. It is becoming plain that the party scene in this sleepy dairy town suffers from weak publicity. Jennifer Murrish and proof of her legendary backstage exploits last year at the Greg Kihn/Night Ranger concerts are not coming to a beer-less party. It is plain that Wendy Kirtley’s easy virtue won’t attend a party that sports no Bud or cocaine. No, they are likely out at a South 12th Street kegger with the football team in unincorporated Fortuna—outside the jurisdiction of that hellhole’s finest. Really, what could a bunch of us dairy farm boys expect?
             Rob and I start to feel an itch for some kind of plan, but Currier doesn’t sweat it. He lets out a big sigh and says, “Well, the old man’s probably gonna kick my ass good for this, but somethin’s gotta give.”
             He disappears back into the kitchen for a good five to ten minutes, and then returns with three plastic cups. He passes one to Rob, one to me, and keeps the last for himself. Inside each is three-quarters of an inch of a light-brown fluid.
              “My dad’s SoCo,” Currier explains. “Hasn’t kept up with the measuring lines, so there’s a chance he won’t notice ... just gotta fudge it a little bit.”
             Being lightweights, the SoCo express-buzzes into our brains, getting our chatter levels up. Rob and I manage to get Van Halen’s 1984 in the crap-encrusted boombox. It’s starting to feel like the night just might get rolling, when a commotion starts up from in front of the house. Someone is yelling Currier’s name.
             “That’s Penrod!” Jamie shouts, and suddenly he’s tearing by us, out the front door, Rob and I following and starting to believe we have found new party life.
             Stepping out on the porch I see, with some disappointment, that it’s the older Penrod brother, Jason. If it had been the younger one, there would definitely have been girls and booze, but that is not to say that this isn’t a solid turn of events. The girls still might be coming, if we can play our cards right.
             But this looks like the least of Jason’s priorities. He’s screaming his ass off, and I can only make out the last of it.
             “That fucker’s back, Jamie! I saw him! I saw his ass out by the barn!”
             With a sudden and violent howl, Currier launches himself off the porch and is out across the old Copenhagen Road before Rob and I can get it together. Jason just gives us a motioning wave.
             “C’mon, man! It’s the fucker that killed Jamie’s dog!”
             “Wha … ?” But then Rob is off with Jason, and I’m suddenly pulling up lame behind this strange new rush of motivation, which was nowhere to be seen even a minute ago.


♥♥♥


             Our savage caravan rushes down a dirt driveway across Copenhagen, past a milk barn, and another twenty-five yards into a heifer’s pen beyond. Currier, Jason, and Rob have formed a semi-circle around the far retaining wall. I don’t quite join them, as my eyes are straining forward in the twilight to see what the commotion is. I can see a dark mass, the size of a large stone, wobbling along the wall, but suddenly, Currier is firing a rock at it, making sure any side-escape is impossible.
             “C’mon, Jeff, get up here and make sure it can’t get away!”
             Rob is my really good friend, but all at once, I can’t stand his voice. Something in it sounds ugly. Coming up to join their formation, I can see the porcupine has stopped its wobbling and is now hunkered up and still. Now, it simply watches us and is visibly shuddering.
             “Careful, Jamie! Those things will shoot out at ya!” Jason yells in a tone that might otherwise sound shrill and feminine.
             There is another still moment. I look to my right, at Currier one more time, who can only glare at the porcupine. A snarl smothers his face.
             “Hell with that shit! Nail him!”
             Jason and Rob react as though they had been rehearsing this. All three of their bodies are picking up heavy, sharp rocks and hurling them against the quaking bundle of quills before I can even process it. I stand numb, as the tempest breaks around me. One projectile hurls the small mammal up against the wall, leaving a huge, dark smear against the wooden boards. The porcupine tries to run away, but another rock breaks against his fragile body.
             “C’mon, Jeff!”
             I can’t tell who says this. The voices of my friends are mixed in with the moaning of the porcupine, which absorbs another four or five devastating blows. I can’t quite believe the stoning of a helpless creature is going to be the highlight of my first high-school party. Yet still, I weakly reach down to pick up what I think might be a rock, out of some insincere loyalty to these goons. I can’t look weak after all, right? Not if I want to get invited to future parties, right? Not if I want to get with the local ladies, right?
             Sure enough, they’ve all stopped pelting the wailing porcupine and are looking at me.
             “Hurry up, or you won’t get any decent shots in!” Jason goads me.
             “Yeah, c’mon, ya pussy!” Rob bellows. Currier doesn’t say anything. In fact, he’s the only one not looking at me, instead just glaring and snorting at the small creature. Finally, he gives me a courtesy glance, as if to say he’ll wait for me.
             Peer pressure somehow drives my feet a little closer to the doomed animal. I pull my arm back, prepared to slip a little further down the ladder of my own self-esteem so I can say, “Yeah, you shoulda been there, man; it sure was great.”
             Before I can launch, I take painful stock of the wheezing creature in front of me. Its wheezing is through a thick layer of dark fluid oozing near its nostrils and mouth. Then, I see its eyes, somehow still regarding; eyes that still tremble at the sight of me aiming, meaning to do harm. He, or she, looks like a little man, plainly expecting me to throw the rock, but also wondering why I don’t, as if perhaps this little person might hold out a bit of hope for rescue, for a chance to get back to its nest.
             “Throw it, wuss!”
             So I do. I even see the porcupine wince as my dirt clod explodes just above it on the retaining wall.
             “Damn, I missed!” I say too loud, too put-on. “I just need to find another rock!” But I really am the wuss boy, running away now, desperately trying to clear the baby tears out of my eyes before the rest of the guys, especially Rob, notice. I can hear the slaughter finishing out behind me, unabated. I had my shot, they’ll say. Jeff had his shot, and he fucked it up. Too bad he didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us.
             “That fucker’s dead as a doornail!” Rob screeches, eventually.
             Jason is coming up behind me now. “You okay, man?” he asks.
             “Yeah, yeah, just got some of that dirt clod in my eye.”
             “Oh, man, that must suck.”
             “Yeah, it sure as shit does,” I keep blustering, trying to fake it.
             “What are we gonna do with the body?” Rob asks Currier.
             “Barn-hands will get it in the morning.” He picks up one more rock and goes over to make sure the killing is finished, caving in the porcupine’s head.
             The party resumes back at Currier’s house, and now with Jason Penrod on board, we soon have beer, and Spar, Gallagher, Mills, and a couple girls even manage to show up.
             I never really come back to the party, though, yet still find a way to drink more than I should. I can’t put on a real tough guy act, after all; I can only pretend that I’m crazier than I am. It’s easier to beat up on myself than on a helpless animal. I guess that’s what makes me different.
             At some point in the stupor of it all, lying in the recliner, sucking up the night’s twelfth rendition of “Panama,” Currier approaches me with something in his hand. I prod myself up to look, and it is a Polaroid of his purebred Lab.
             “His name was Rocko. He was born out on the back porch, and Dad gave him to me the minute he squeezed outta his mom. Shit, for everyone around here, it was just me and him for the last ten years.”
             The shot of Rocko is precious, his gentle muzzle looking sweetly into the camera. “What an awesome dog,” I say in a numbed mumble.
             “You ain’t kiddin’. He was a smart boy, a good boy … best friend I coulda had out here.”
             Looking deep into the photo, I can see he was a good dog, just by looking at his eyes. Rocko had “good dog eyes,” like so many pure Labs do.
             “It wasn’t like he hadn’t caught quills before. He couldn’t leave the fuckers alone. When I got back home from school last week, and I saw what happened to him …” and Currier doesn’t finish the thought. Where his voice was brutal a couple of hours ago, it’s cracked again, like when we first showed up. And now, he can’t even speak. I look up at him and see the barest of tears leaking out of his demeanor. He looks back at me, takes a quick pass over his eyes, smiles, and hands me the last of his dad’s SoCo and the Polaroid.
             “Dad’s gonna kick my ass real good for this, but that’s okay. This party’s been worth it!” Currier laughs and goes back to the boys bellowing in the kitchen. I look back at Rocko’s photo, wondering why the look in the dog’s eyes seems so familiar.


♥ End ♥



Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of three collections of prose poems and flash fiction: Coming World Gone World (Howling Dog, 2006), Neocom(muter) (Tainted Coffee, 2009), and 19th Street Station (Full of Crow, 2011). He is a co-founder of the Beast Crawl Literary Festival in Oakland, California, and is the fiction editor for Full of Crow Online Quarterly. Recent and upcoming work can be seen in Cease, Cows; Samizdat Literary Journal; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; Red Fez; Corium, and Be About It. He was the winner of the Out of Our Magazine 2010 Poetry Contest and spent the evening of the Rodney King Riots in 1992 barricaded in a Circle K convenience store. This story first appeared in Up the Staircase. [Author photo by and © Timothy Crandle; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

Above All Men, a new novel by Eric Shonkwiler, available for pre-order from MG Press. Don’t miss the author critics are saying, “takes the world on his own terms, and wrestles it to the ground.” (Tom Lutz, The Los Angeles Review of Books).
         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
         Reserve your copy in any format for $1 today, and get 20% off the cover price upon March 2014 release.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.