The Happiest Place  |  Alexa Mergen















             



THE CHRISTMAS TOMMY TURNED ELEVEN, he tore the wrapping off a large box to find an I.O.U. buried within. This was the first Christmas after his mother left, and his father still tried hard to win Tommy’s allegiance. The slip of paper promised a spring break trip to Anaheim to visit Disneyland. Tommy Senior also guaranteed one dollar a week for the next twelve weeks, until the trip, to be spent however his son wished. His father watched from where he sat on the floor, his back against the couch. Tommy held the paper with his dad’s tiny printing lined up in the middle.
             “What do you think, son?” his father asked, taking a sip of coffee from the red and green mug Tommy had made in art class four years earlier.
             Tommy wanted a chinchilla like the one in the window at Main Street Pets. “How do I know we’ll really go?”
             His father’s jaw jutted to one side, and Tommy heard him take a breath before he answered, “Because I said so.”
             “Okay.” Tommy reached for the package from his grandmother in Fresno, which he knew contained pajamas and underwear.
             Later in his room upstairs with the underwear, pajamas printed with blue and red race cars, and the book from his aunt, Mysteries and Riddles, piled neatly on his bed, Tommy reread the I.O.U. He considered asking his father if the twelve dollars could be used for a gerbil or hamster, but decided to see if the money materialized first. He longed for something soft he could pet and talk to while in his room. The cat, Samson, died the month before Tommy’s mother left. Burying it in the backyard beneath the locust tree was the last long afternoon they spent together. Tommy tried not to cry, but when his mother told him they should head back inside and start dinner, the tears fell, and he bit his upper lip. She picked Tommy up, although she was not much taller than he, kissed his check, looked him in the face, and said, “T. J., honey, I know it’s sad, but he wouldn’t have been around much longer anyway.”
             Once inside, he pulled the striped photo album from the shelf in the living room and sat at the kitchen table while his mother fried linguisa. When she went into the living room to answer the telephone, he removed the Polaroid of himself in diapers holding Samson, the black cat’s hind legs dragging on the floor, its white belly exposed. Tommy kept the photo in a cigar box with his Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and a twenty-dollar bill his aunt gave him “for emergencies.” After his mother left, Tommy checked each closet to see what she had taken with her. The album remained on the shelf, and Tommy wished she had it and would notice the photo missing and be sorry.
             Although the weekly dollars came sporadically, the trip would happen. On Thursday of the first week of April, Tommy’s father came home with two train tickets in his shirt pocket. Tommy asked for one to take to school and show his friends, but his father said he would lose it. Instead, he gave him a thin, yellow itinerary, and Tommy passed it around at lunch. His friends’ Christmas toys were now broken or lacked batteries, and though popular for his generosity—he always shared food when asked and let others copy his math homework—Tommy achieved his first brief period of celebrity. At home, the underwear that was new a few months ago was as gray as the rest, although the unworn pajamas were bright and fresh enough for another boy. Tommy was grateful to have an event to look forward to. He would have preferred, however, a different travel companion.
             As the days lengthened and orange poppies bloomed in the median strips, Tommy Senior seemed to have more hours to be mean. Like his son, who scratched lines inside his dresser drawer counting the days since his mother left, the deserted husband felt trapped by the approach of May when Julie had taken off. His short temper got shorter. He did not drink at home so Tommy could not predict what set him off storming through the house crying, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, goddamn,” or pulling out a four-by-four from behind the kitchen door, laying it on the table, and hammering in nail after nail, letting out a scream with each blow. But he never hit Tommy, and there was food in the refrigerator, so the boy knew he was fortunate enough.
             To avoid his father, Tommy went to bed as soon as dusk fell. Sometimes he left during a commercial, in the middle of a television show.
             “Where are you going, Junior?” his father asked over his shoulder.
             “Just up to bed,” Tommy replied, rubbing one hand up and down the banister.
             “You sick? You better not be, and if you are, blame your mother. Her side was a sickly bunch if I ever saw one.” Then, his father would wave his large hand and say, “Go ahead. You’re not much company anyway,” or “Go ahead and leave me, too. What the hell.”
             But Tommy knew his father had loved Mother, he saw it in the faces of the photos in the striped album he now kept hidden in his room. And he figured because he was part of his mom, his father loved him, too. Sure enough, sometimes his father called after him.
             “Be sure you get your homework done, son.” Or, “Brush your teeth good.”


♥♥♥


             Disneyland disappointed Tommy. He had been told by the train conductor that the park is the happiest place on Earth. Yet, before the bus even stopped in front of the gate, Tommy knew this was not so. The girl who sold them their tickets struggled to count the bills and coins the register displayed. The turnstile needed a good shove to pass through, and the cotton candy vendors walked as if their feet ached. Since he was worse than motherless—abandoned—Tommy knew about fake cheer. He received it from the checkout man at the grocery, from his teacher, from the mothers of his friends who tucked him in at overnights as if he were their child, and even from his own father who pulled the cookbook from the kitchen shelf and attempted the porcupine balls Tommy’s mother had made.
             “What do you think, kiddo? Dad can cook, too,” he said, as he spooned the crumbly meatballs onto Tommy’s plate.
             His mother also made a sauce from canned tomatoes, but Tommy said nothing except, “It’s great, Dad. Thanks.”
             Now with his hand on the boy’s back, Tommy’s father guided him toward Sleeping Beauty. His father took off his cap as if entering church.
             “Would you like your picture taken with Sleeping Beauty?” Tom Senior asked, looking at the clear-skinned girl in the blue dress.
             “No, Dad, thanks,” Tommy turned toward the rollercoaster.
             “Now, son, she seems like a nice fairytale. Aren’t you?” he asked the girl.
             She smiled and tilted her head, her basket held in front of her as she rocked from foot to foot.
             “Maybe later, Dad. I’m hungry.”
             His father took pride in the fact that his family, the two of them, never went hungry. “No one can say you ever went hungry,” his father would tell him at dinner. “You get your three squares.” Tommy’s father winked at the costumed teen and said to her, “Growing boy.” Then, Tommy and his father bought two hot dogs and drinks.
             To please his father, Tommy went on each ride they came to in their tour of the park. If his father waited behind, Tommy made sure to look for him, standing on the lowest rung of the fence that kept the visitors in orderly lines. On one of his last rides, The Octopus, Tommy finally saw behind the rides and storefronts. Bags of garbage overflowed dumpsters, and he thought he saw Snow White with Robin Hood passing a cigarette behind a crepe myrtle bush. But when he turned to look, the car swung, and he ended up facing the other way. He couldn’t see no matter how he twisted his neck.
             Their last ride was a miniature train. It had a black engine banded by shiny brass strips. It blew smoke from a smoke stack but ran on electricity. Tigger and the Chipmunks leaned from the sides of the passenger cars as the train slowed to a stop. This didn’t make sense since Tigger was from Winnie the Pooh and the Chipmunks were a cartoon. Tommy caught himself trying to think logically. This was Disneyland, dork, and inside the costumes were people acting happy for their job.
             As the train wound through the park, Tommy’s dad put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders. They sat in the last bench seat by themselves. The sun was setting, and it did feel comfortable to push his face into the breeze. Tommy counted 10 bench seats on each side of the aisle. Each seat could hold three without squishing. That meant 60 people could fit in that car alone—his entire sixth grade class. That would be fun! Tommy mastered fractions before the spring break, and now his mind was spinning. He and his dad were two—one-thirtieth of the number that could fill the car. If his mom were there, they would be three—one-twentieth. That sounded like a much bigger percentage. One person makes a difference when counting numbers. He and his dad were two-thirds of a family.


♥♥♥


             They spent both nights at Aunt Pat’s house. The second night, Tommy left his cousins in front of their computer games in the family room to get a drink of water from the hall bathroom. As he pulled the paper cup from the pop-up dispenser, he overheard his name. He crept a few steps down the hall in his bare feet and stopped to listen to his father, aunt, and uncle talk. Shoulders tense, he remembered his mother telling him eavesdropping is not nice, but she was gone.
             “Pat,” his father said in a pleading voice Tommy had not heard, “I’m not saying forever. If you could just take him for a week. June, July, you choose. Then maybe Mom and Dad can take him for a few days.”
             “Mom and Dad?” Pat asked. “You’d send him there? Jesus, Tom, what are you thinking?”
             “Pat’s right, Tom,” the uncle said. “I don’t think a boy T. J.’s age would have much fun there.”
             Through the crack between the doorjamb and the open door, Tommy saw his uncle’s hand pat his aunt’s knee beneath the table. They were drinking coffee.
             “It’s Tommy, not T. J.”
             “Well, Tom, we’ve always called him T. J. The kids call him that.”
             “Not anymore. I don’t want to hear that anymore.” Tommy’s father took a sip of coffee and set the cup down hard, spilling some. “Christ, I’m sorry, Pat.”
             She handed him a napkin from the holder. “Don’t worry about it, for Pete’s sake. Do you ever hear from Julie anyway?”
             “She called once. A couple of weeks after. Tommy was in bed. Kid goes to bed with the chickens.” He looked at Pat. “He’s a pretty good kid. No problems.” When she didn’t respond, he continued, “J-bird wasn’t crying, but she sounded close.”
             “What’d she want?” Pat asked, leaning forward in her chair.
             “She, Christ, she wanted to know if I forgive her.”
             Tommy’s uncle shook his head, and Tommy saw his eye catch the clock hung on the wall. He gave his wife’s knee another little squeeze. She glared at him.
             “What did you say?”
             “What was I supposed to say? I asked how she was doing. I told her I loved her. I told her we were still married and always would be in the eyes of God.” He put one hand on top of his coffee cup as his sister held the pot. “Pattie, you were there. We promised to take care of each other. We were a family. What the hell happened? What the fuck did I do wrong?” He wiped at his eye with the heel of his hand, then looked at his hand as if surprised to find it dampened.
             Tommy started to back away from the door, but as he did, he heard his father say in a low whisper, so plain Tommy heard it as if spoken in his own ear, “I can’t do this. We’re not going to make it.”


♥ End ♥



After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. A list of her published fiction, poetry, and essays can be found at alexamergen.com. Alexa leads writing workshops and edits the blog, Yoga Stanza. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

A PDF of this story is available for free.





Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch. All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Tutu  |  Victor Smith















             



“I SWEAR TO GOD, I went to Nationals in high school,” June blurted, wiping beer from her chin.
             Miss June and Early sat in the mid-afternoon solitude in front of the Mobil Home drinking, facing the pumps and waving to the occasional passing car. June took a tug at the bottle she had just taken from the cooler next to her chair, and continued.
             “I use ta be the best. My mother’s still got ribbons and trophies all over the den. I’m tellin ya.”
             Early sat back, his mind’s eye basking in the lascivious image of Miss June in a tight and skimpy unitard, ruffled at the waist, twirling and tossing the silvery baton.
             “I had my own routine just like what’s-her-name, the skater, ya know. I chose my own music and did my own thing up there.” She took a double gulp of the Utica Club, belched silently, eyes closing, with her free hand patting daintily at her chest just below the collarbone. “Oh, Early,” she whispered, unable for the moment to use her larynx, “that musta gone down the wrong way.”
             Early winked. “Miss June, ain’t no such thing as going down the wrong way, far as I’m concerned.” He took a big tug at his beer, swallowed hard, stretched his arms out wide, and belched loud enough to quiet birds and wake the dead. “I’d sure like to see a parade go by. Right here, right now. Did you know I used to play drums in school? Marched just like you did, every parade.” He took half the bottle in three fast gulps, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo. “You know, I’m a pretty patriotic guy. You’d never know looking at me. Used to get pretty into it, marching right behind the twirlers, banging on the snare. I was lead drummer on the right, man. Everybody else had to guide off me.”
             Miss June leaned over, warming to this vague mutual interest. “No shit?” she replied. “Parades are so cool. Ya know, I think I still got my baton in the trunk of the Camaro.”
             She looked down at her nearly empty bottle, shook out the remaining few drops, and tossed it into the trash can next to the front door. Dogma raised his head off the couch as the can reverberated next to his shady corner. He yawned, snapped at a circling deerfly, and went back to his dog-day napping. Early leaned over, pulled another out of the cooler, twisted off the cap, and handed it to Miss June. She took it, leaned back in her chair, stretched her arms back with a yawn, dribbling foam out the top of the sloshing bottle.
             “Oh, Early Bird, I don’t know. I shouldn’t be drinkin’ all this beer this time of day.”
             Early leaned over further, tipped his chair up onto two right legs, and threw his arm around her shoulder, leaning his own shoulder into her to keep from tipping over. “June Bug, the sun’s out hot, we’re sitting here with nothing better to do, nowhere else to go ... Remember how hot it used to get marching on Memorial Day? Man, I’d sweat my ass off.”
             “It was sure hot, even in that little thing they made me wear. I’ll tell ya.”
             Early removed his arm, brought his chair back to level, and drained his beer, tossing it at the trashcan over his left shoulder. It missed, bounced off the wall, and broke on the asphalt below. They both erupted into party laughter, turning to look at the shards of Early’s burgeoning incoordination.
             Turning back, Early looked over at Miss June. “Man, those days are gone,” he said. “I gave up drumming for the guitar, and I’ll bet you can’t twirl no more since you took up singing with your dad.”
             June sat up straight in indignation, taking the barely disguised bait whole. “Maybe you’re done. But I was the best, and I can still twirl just as good as I ever did.” With that, she lunged up and out of the chair, side-stepped her way back into balance, and made for the back of the Camaro. She leaned her pelvis into the side of the aging muscle car, fumbling in her tight jeans pocket for the keys.
             Early tipped back his beer, adjusted his crotch, and yelled over, “You still got the outfit?”
             June turned the key, pulling up on the trunk lid with her left hand, and banged it with the heel of her right hand just above the lock, as always. The lid popped, and she began rummaging through the piles of clothing, tools, and empty bottles, until she came up with a somewhat-greasy, but still functional, chrome-plated baton.
             Early took another pull at his beer and asked again, “Hey, look at that! You still got the outfit?”
             June rummaged some more and came up with a grimy little gym bag with the initials, JCS, and a baton embroidered on the side. She struggled with the rusty zipper as Early watched with growing impatience.
             “You need some WD on that,” Early said.
             She finally overpowered the zipper in little jerks and removed a flimsy looking, crinoline tutu affair with a ruffle along the bottom.
             “You can’t still get into that, can you?”
             Miss June turned around too fast, losing her balance, catching herself against the quarter panel of the Camaro. Holding the tutu out in front of herself, she snarled indignantly, “I can fit that!”
             Early’s mind raced the best that it could along this alcoholic backroad, colliding with blivets of large volumes in small containers, teenage fantasy obscuring thirtyish reality. He grabbed the gas pump to stop the vertigo of these prurient contradictions. “Bet you can’t!”
             Miss June huffed and began a swaying drunkwalk toward the front door. “We’ll just see about that!”
             Early stumbled back to his chair and dropped heavily into it. He drew the back of his hand across his brow, shaking it off in a gesture of blistering, libidinous heat. He looked over at his sleeping dog as he reached for his next Utica Club. “Dogma, old buddy, you and me are about to get a real show. You best wake it and shake it right now.”
             He was finishing his beer and checking his watch about the time the screen door slammed open, sending Dogma out of his slothful indolence, off the couch, and onto his feet. Miss June stood at the threshold, leaning heavily against the jamb, one knee bent sideways, one leg straight, one arm akimbo, the greasy baton spinning in front of her at the end of the other.
             “Hot diggity dog!” yelled Early, grabbing another beer, twisting around to face the house, trying to get up off the rickety chair. On his second lunge, he found his feet and held the pump to keep from falling. “Whoooeeee! Look at that!”
             Miss June stepped down to the asphalt and started a high-knee march in place, spinning the baton like a silver propeller. She had managed to get into the tutu, technically winning Early’s informal bet, but she was clearly not the little girl she used to be. The elastic leg holes bit painfully into the ample flesh of her thighs, creating a sausage-like effect just below her pelvic girdle. Her breasts were pressed close together and stuffed asymmetrically into the front of the garment, coming out the top like the foam oozing out of Early’s beer bottle. She tossed the baton high in the air, and—without a glance—passed her cigarette and caught the spinning staff in her opposite hand.
             “Holy shit,” said Early. “I don’t fucking believe my eyes!” He staggered over to the garbage can and up-ended it in a single motion as he hit the wall with his shoulder, foam spewing from the beer he had forgotten to set down. Trash and empty bottles scattered about the parking lot, and Dogma scurried for cover under the Camaro. Early emptied the rest of his beer, picked up another bottle, and began to beat furiously on the bottom of the can. “Step high, Miss June! Step higher!” he slurred, beating out a martial cadence, staring at the gaudy spectacle before him.
             She stuck the cigarette into her mouth, spinning around and changing hands. Her second spin revealed that the zipper linking the back of the tutu was beginning to fail near the bottom, its little teeth bulging with pent-up flesh that would not be denied.
             “Whoooooeeee!” yelled Early, as he beat on the can. “You’re doing it. You’re hot today!”
             Dogma snuck his head out from under the Camaro and watched the cacophonous drama unfolding just above his place of refuge. His tail began to quiver as Miss June marched past the car, spinning and swaggering. Early beat furiously, breaking a bottle, reaching for another without losing the cadence. Miss June’s zipper continued to part slowly upward, loosening the tutu, making her feel more comfortable as the vitality of reprised youth coursed through her veins alongside the alcohol. Dogma crawled carefully and quietly. Early beat faster.
             “Whooooeeee!” he cried.
             Then—as if staged for the eye of God watching this spectacle—three events took place in a startling precision of coincidence: their friend Harry’s station wagon careened into the parking lot, Dogma lunged out and locked onto Miss June’s left calf, and the aging zipper parted all the way to the top of the tutu. Harry got out of the car, Dogma humped in closed-eye abandon, and the front of Miss June’s tutu popped open to reveal a mountainous landscape, compressed and held together with multiple strips of duct tape. Harry gaped, Dogma humped, and Miss June screeched. She flailed at the dog with the baton, while Early just kept on banging the garbage can louder and louder.
             “Whooooeeeee!”
             Miss June bolted for the house, dragging and beating at the slobbering dog, which let go just before the threshold. Early fell backward in spasms of uncontrollable laughter, with Dogma all over him, licking his face and hands.
             Harry just stood there, erect and wide-eyed with astonishment, absorbing the incredible coincidence he’d stumbled onto. He slowly made his way toward the convulsing Early, helping him to his feet and back into his chair by the pumps.
             “You got any more of that beer?”


♥ End ♥



VICTOR SMITH is a writer living in a rural upstate New York hamlet that just might be the setting of this piece. He has self-published two novels, and has had shorter fiction accepted in a number of online and paper magazines. He has been rejected by the very best minds in the pantheon of corporate publishing—an accomplishment that brings him great pride. He is also a musician and writer of quirky and cynical love songs.

A PDF of this story is available for free.





Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch. All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Inheritance  |  Stephanie Liden

Please read this story at its new home here, and please update any links that point to this old page.