Thursday, November 26, 2020

Resolution

 Here's the story I wrote for NYC Midnight back in 2017 that was published last year in the anthology On Loss.




Resolution


I dropped my equipment in the back and slammed the van’s door, staring at the faded sign: S. Mackle and D. Gerson Exterminating.  Then, underneath, in smaller letters: If It Scurries – Never Worry!  I hated that rhyme, but Dave had insisted on it. 


I put my hand on his name for a second and choked something down.  


I got into the front seat of the van and turned the key.  It chugged, it protested, but it started.  I’d begun to get worried about the old girl lately – she had nigh on 150,000 miles – but she was nearly as reliable as the day Dave and I had bought her.  Just a little cranky.  


Today’s wet sky gave up its light without fanfare, flint to graphite to charcoal.  Typical Portland January.  I’d just killed a nest of rats -  mom, dad, and baby - at a bungalow in Montavilla, one of the far flung city neighborhoods that used to be affordable.


This year I’m going to…  


I’d been trying to think of a good resolution for weeks.  I was never good at them, but I always tried.  Last year it was the typical stuff: lose weight, save money, drink less.  I’d done well on the first two, but then...


But then October 21st.  


I pulled the flask out of my jacket and took a swig.  Just a small one.  I put it away and popped an Altoid.


The van’s engine chugged, and I checked my phone for the address of the next job.  It was far away in St. Johns.  I wasn’t looking forward to the rush hour traffic, and I was going to be late.  I called the client’s number.  


“Hey, yes, this is Steve Mackle.  Yes, the exterminator.  Sorry to do this to you but I’m going to be about twenty minutes late depending on traffic. My last job took longer than I thought it would.  Ok.  Thanks for your understanding.  Bye.”  


I set up my navigation and hit the gas pedal.  


This year I’m going to... 


Maybe I’d do one of those “live life to the fullest” things.  But it wasn’t like I could just sell the van and the business and jet off to Tahiti.  I mean, I could, but what would happen when the money ran out?  


I wasn’t the kind for impulsive decisions anyway.  Dave always knew that.  For me, everything had to have a plan. 


It would be disrespectful to Dave if I did anything too out of character right now.


This year I’m going to...


I’d had my mourning. 


I had to find the colors again myself. 


Up the winding road that skirted Mount Tabor, that volcano covered in pine and cedar, down Burnside past the mansions, right turn on Cesar Chavez, the street named after the farmer labor leader who could never afford to live in this city now.  Up the city’s spine to its northernmost edge.  St. Johns, the city’s fifth quadrant, the small town within the big city. 


This year I’m going to...


Should I take up a new hobby?  Sewing always interested me, but the startup costs intimidated me. I’d actually shopped around for a machine, but the good ones cost hundreds of dollars.  Then there was fabric, supplies, and I didn’t have the foggiest clue where to even begin with any of it.  


I could brew beer.  Everyone in this city did that.  But again, the startup costs.  And the complication.  And the fact that I might make poison instead of beer.  And I didn’t really have space for a brewing setup in our...my small garden duplex. 


Although these days it seemed so much bigger. 

  

I turned left where Siri told me to and looked for the house.  The neighborhood was all early 1900s craftsman bungalows oozing expensive charm.  Small neat lawns straddled buckled sidewalks towered over by skeletons of trees and flanked by rose bushes.  My customer lived in...that one.  I pulled over and stopped the van, got out, slid open the side door and grabbed my equipment.  


The house was typical for the neighborhood, wood stairs leading to a big covered porch framed by wrought iron columns, friendly dormers and a low pitched roof.  I knocked on the door.


This year I’m going to...


What would Dave’s resolution have been?  Some wild scheme to write the great American novel or open a gourmet catering business or who the hell knew. Every year Dave dreamed big, and every year nothing came of it.  


Except the exterminator business.  That had been his idea.  His way for the two of us to quit the desk job grind and do something more interesting. Together.  He’d talked me into it despite my arachnophobia, insisting that we’d focus more on rats and vermin than on bugs and skittering things.  But the bug jobs had come, and he and I had had our fair share of arguments about whether to accept the job with the nest of black widows under the porch.  We always did, of course, and I gritted my teeth and did my best.


The woman who answered the door stared at me with brown eyes behind thick glasses, gray hair tight back in a bun.  She wore an argyle sweater and Mom jeans, fuzzy slippers on her feet.  


“Hi, I’m Steve Mackle, the exterminator,” I said.


“The rats are in the garage. Here’s the key,” she said, handing me a small brass key.  “Knock again when you’re done.”


She closed the door in my face.  


I walked around to the detached garage at the side of the house. I strapped on my headlamp and turned it on, adjusting it to show the path in front of me. 


The garage door slid open manually, with a keyhole in the center handle.  I put the key in and unlocked it, then hoisted the door upwards.  


I fumbled and found a light switch, flicked it upward.  A bare bulb in the center flickered on.  


The garage had clearly never had a car parked in it.  Tools and supplies rested in clearly labeled white drawers against the back wall.  A lawnmower, some assorted shovels, spades, and other yard equipment shared space in one corner.  A box labeled “Christmas Decorations” sat next to another one labeled “Halloween Decorations” on a high shelf. It was a practical garage for a practical family.  A neat slice of a tidy life.  A family that had figured out all the big questions long ago, and now only needed to know where the hammer was.  


I’d thought once that Dave and I would get there someday.  I could see him now, coming out to this garage to get the lawnmower.  Fighting to mow the thicket of grass that had accumulated in the three weeks of near daily rainfall since the last dry day when he’d been able to mow.  Coming in for a glass of lemonade, smelling of grass and sweat and gasoline from filling the mower. Staying for a kiss.  


Memories of things that could never happen didn’t care if they were clich├ęs.


I took the flask out and looked at it, thought about another sip.  Just a little one.


A scurrying brought me back, coming from the corner near the lawn equipment.  I put the flask away and adjusted my headlamp as I crouched down, looking for the telltale signs.  


There.  I found the hole.  The baseboard had rotted away some, likely due to rain intrusion, allowing the rats to get in from outside. 


First order of business was to plug the hole, so I did that, sealing it so the rats couldn’t just chew it open again.  I’d have to tell the homeowner to get these baseboards repaired and get someone out here to talk to her about water intrusion.  


I looked carefully for any other holes, but that seemed to be the only one.  I put out the glue traps.  


And that was that.  I turned off the light and closed the garage door, locking it behind me.  I walked up front and knocked on the door.  The woman with the gray bun opened it and looked at me through her glasses.


I handed her the key back.  “I plugged the rat hole and put out some traps.  I’ll come back on Friday and check on them, ok?  Be careful walking around out there not to step on the traps.”


“Thanks,” she said, and handed me a check.


“Make sure you get your baseboards fixed and have someone come out here and check the garage for water intrusion.  Rats like to get in through weak spots, and water likes to make that easier for them.”  


“Ok,” she said.  “Thanks.”  She closed the door.  


I sat in the van for a few minutes with my eyes closed and the engine running, glad that I had no more customers today. I needed a drink, and a shower, and another drink.  


This year I’m going to...  


What kind of resolution did I need, anyway?  A big, meaty project that would distract me and get me out of my own head?  Or maybe just a few small, simple things that might give me some small satisfaction.


My phone rang.  It was AJ, a longtime friend who was always good for a warm night at a bar.  Exactly the kind of night I needed right now.    


“Hey AJ, what’s up?”


“Haven’t heard from you in a few weeks.”  


AJ’s voice was cultivated androgyny. They’d come out as agender while we were in college together, and I’d spent the next few years helping them figure out what that meant. A decade later, we were still close.  


And since October 21st they’d been the hand hoisting me slowly upwards out of hell.    


“Mick’s?  Like in an hour and a half? I have to get home and shower.”


“Yeah no problem,” said AJ.  


I drove home on surface streets, trying to take shortcuts to avoid traffic.  Our apartment...my apartment...was in far Southeast Portland.  It was a cheaper part of town, relatively speaking, although like everyone, I worried daily about my rent being raised.  Two duplexes framed a central courtyard, four apartments in total, on a street of small bungalows that had quadrupled in value over the last decade.  


I unlocked my door and stepped inside, the air still wrong, the silence still empty.  I shook it off.  


I showered, lingering, breathing in the steam. I dressed in simple clothes, warm, comfortable, and slipped on my old sneakers.  I looked at myself in the mirror.  The dark circles were starting to fade from under my eyes, but...was that gray in my beard?  I plucked a few of them out, making my eyes water.  Then I gave up.  


I locked up the apartment again and drove the van to Mick’s.  It was only a few minutes away, a neighborhood dive bar that hadn’t yet been gentrified into anything artisanal.  It served strong cocktails and good beer, the best onion rings I’d ever had, and almost never had blaring sports on the TV.  


Most importantly, it wasn’t anywhere Dave and I had gone together. So there were no memories to get stuck in.  


AJ was sitting at a booth with a martini in front of them.  They’d cut their black hair short, and were dressed, as always, as their own modern interpretation of Annie Hall, complete with man’s dress shirt and skinny tie.  We hugged in greeting. 


I sat opposite them in the booth.


“So?  Nu?”  AJ asked, using their favorite Yiddish expression. 


“The usual.” 


The waitress came over.  


“Double Jack, neat,” I said.  “And some onion rings.”


The waitress nodded and left.  


“Still?” asked AJ.  


“What still?  It’s my drink.”


AJ took a deep breath and leaned back in the booth.  “Alright.  It’s time.”


“What?”  I asked.


AJ gave me a look.  I knew what it meant.  I wasn’t ready


But something had already begun to shift in my mind. For the first time since I lost him, I wanted to be ready.


This year I’m going to…


I’d been looking for a better resolution.  Something to put my life into sharper focus.  Something to help me see the colors again.  


“I...don’t know, AJ.  OK?  I just...”  I couldn’t put any more of it into words yet.    


AJ nodded.  “We’ve had this conversation.  A lot.”


“I know.”


“And how does it always go?” 


“You tell me, ‘You two were together for a long time.  It’s going to be really hard.’”


AJ nodded.  “And then you say…”


“I’m not ready.”  


“And then I nod and decide to give you some more time to grieve.”


“And I appreciate it.  I...need more time.”  I did.  Although...


“Ok, so here’s the next part of the conversation,” AJ said. “The part I’ve been waiting to have with you.”


“What?”


AJ paused, and then launched into it.  “You’re drinking too much. Way too much.  And you’re falling into the pain instead of climbing out of it.  It’s time to start...” 


AJ’s voice faded as my drink arrived.  I looked at it, thought about how it lit the dark places with warm amber.  How it softened the sharp edges that had only just started to dull.  How it kept me company in ways I thought I needed, but probably not as much anymore.  


I looked at AJ, their kind eyes staring me down, boring a hole in the barriers I’d put up.  


“Steve…”


Dave sat on the other side of the booth, a reflection lit by amber.  I remembered him, all of him.  His blond hair, before he lost it to the chemo.  The warmth of his cheeks, before they went sallow.  His sky blue eyes, before the light went out of them.


I saw him smiling at me, felt him holding my hand, felt the warmth of it.  


“Let go,” he said.  


I fought, sank deeper into the amber.  


“Let go,” he said again.  


“No,” I whispered. “I can’t.” I trembled the glass to my lips and dove into it.  The heat hit me as hard as the words this ghost of a memory was saying to me.  


“Let.  Go.”


Something broke, shattered the amber. I saw the colors again, just a glimpse, blurry and far away.   


I blinked and looked up at AJ.  I pushed the glass away from me.


This year I’m going to…


Let go.



  

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gambit

 A sweet little love story I wrote for NYC Midnight a few years back.


Gambit  

The smile floated off of Eric’s lips and performed a dance of giggly, embarrassed giddiness in the air over Nathan’s bed.  Eric grabbed the joint from the nightstand and lit it, taking a long pull.  He could hear Nathan in the kitchenette rummaging for a bottle of wine. 

Nathan lived in a crumbling warehouse loft that was at once charming and decrepit.  Cracks in the walls conversed with one another in hushed tones about the acrobatics they’d just witnessed, and a bulb in the ceiling flickered, making the shadows applaud.

“There we are,” said Nathan, and came up smiling with a bottle of cheap white and two glasses.  He laid back down next to Eric and handed him a glass.  Eric put the joint down in the ashtray and sipped at the wine. The combination of Atomic Kush and Chardonnay would soon absorb him directly into the mattress. 

“So,” Nathan began.

“So?”  Eric took a sip of wine.

“What makes you tick?  Why are we here?  Why me?  Why you?” Nathan traced a finger along the pale skin of Eric’s chest. Eric closed his eyes and let him. 

It had all been very weird and very wonderful very quickly, and Eric was very scared of what might happen next.  Still, Eric knew what he wanted, and more importantly who he wanted, and where, and in what particular positions, and how often, and right now the who that he wanted was tracing a line of goosebumps along Eric’s skin.   

“Why all the questions?”  Eric asked, settling back into the pillows.

“I want to figure you out. So just give me the why.  Why you thought you could pull off that gambit at the gym.  Why it worked on me, at least at first. Let’s begin there.”

Eric remembered the improbable sequence of events that had led them both here.

 

He had dragged himself to the gym for the first time in months, deciding that if he was going to pay for the damned membership, he might as well use it.  He’d wandered around for a while, unsure of where to start, and then jumped on a treadmill. Bored after twenty minutes of aimless walking, he’d shut the machine down and stepped off.

“Excuse me,” a voice had said.  Eric had turned around to face this blond Adonis, all sweat and muscles like unpopped bubble wrap. 

“Yes?”  Eric had managed to respond.

“Do you work here?  Can you tell me how to use that machine over there?” 

This hunk had pointed at a Medieval torture device of pulleys and bars and spikey things.  Eric had just blinked at him, unable to figure out why the guy thought Eric was a gym employee, unable to stop just...staring. This guy could have been made in a lab by Tim Curry.

But then, Eric had noticed something else. 

Eric was wearing the same color shirt that the trainers were wearing, a canary yellow.    

Of all the unlikely...

And his idiot brain had taken over from there. 

 

Eric took another sip of wine and studied Nathan’s form in the darkness. 

“What can I say? You have seen you, right? You are aware of...this.”  Eric rubbed Nathan’s pecs. “And this.”  Eric stroked Nathan’s abs.  “And of course, these...” Eric grabbed a solid handful of Nathan’s right bicep.  “And that’s just the top of you.” 

Nathan just grinned. 

“So yeah, I had a plan.  I was going to bluff my way directly into your sheer black workout shorts.  And hey, it kind of worked.”  

“Kind of,” said Nathan.  “The into my shorts part worked.  But we both know where the bluff landed.” 

 

The machine was all levers and wheels and things you put into holes to change the amount of weight you wanted to lift.  Eric had a passing familiarity with it, but he wasn’t at all sure which muscles this one was intended to work on, or whether to sit at it forwards or backwards. 

He’d rolled bluff in his mind and gone for it. 

“So you choose your weight here,” he’d pointed at that bit, “and then you see this pulley?  Um, you grab it...”  He’d reached up to grab the pulley, but found it pulling him instead.  He’d stood there on tiptoes, swinging a little, until he’d gotten a grip of the thing with both hands and pulled it down a little. “And then you sit on this bench.”  He sat on the bench holding the pulley overhead.  “And then um, you pull down on the pulley.” 

He’d pulled down on the pulley and smacked himself in the head with it.

“Ow.” 

“You sure about that?” Nathan had said. 

“Well, the head hitting isn’t strictly necessary,” he’d said, trying to laugh it off.  “You can, um, have the pulley go in front of you or behind you.” 

“Uh-huh,” Nathan had said.  “Which do you recommend for lats?”

“For lats?  Um...”  Eric had struggled to remember where the heck the “lats” were.  He’d given up and flipped a mental coin.

“Um, behind you. Definitely.” 

“Huh.  Cause that guy over there is doing it in front of him.”  Nathan had pointed to a similar machine nearby.

“Well he looks like...um, he’s doing a variation that I um...wouldn’t recommend.” 

That sounded plausible, right? 

“Is there a particular angle I should be going for?  Anything I should not do?”

“Um...” Eric scrambled for insight.  “Don’t...well, I mean, don’t hit your head, obviously, we’ve covered that.  Don’t go too far down with it...or you um, won’t target the muscle properly.”

There.  Target the muscle.  Those were workout words.  He was totally pulling this off.

“Don’t um, bend over too far forward, or you’ll pull something.  And be careful releasing the pulley, or...argh...”

Eric had released the pulley, nearly tearing his arms out of their sockets in the process.  The pulley had sproinged off the top of the machine with a loud clang. 

“Or that’ll happen.”   

Eric had stood up from the bench.

Nathan had given him a look that said, “You’re either terrible at your job, or you’re bullshitting me.”

 

At least, that’s what Eric had thought it meant at the time.  Now he wasn’t so sure.  Something nagged at him.   

“After that ludicrous display, why’d you stick around?”

Nathan grinned.  “Well, I mean, at that point I knew something was up. I’m not an idiot.  But you were just so cute about it all.”

“Hey, you know what they say – when you have no idea what you’re talking about, project confidence. It’s how politics works, at least.”

“You do know where the lats are, right?”

Eric grinned.  “I think I do. Somewhere in the back, right?” 

“They’re right here.”  Nathan rolled over onto his stomach and grabbed Eric’s hand, bringing it over to stroke Nathan’s lats. 

And they were the lattiest lats Eric had ever had the pleasure to stroke. 

Nathan looked at Eric with that face, and Eric kissed him.  And kissed him some more.  The flickering shadows and cracks in the walls looked away, fearing a repeat of the antics they’d witnessed earlier. 

Nathan wasn’t an idiot. He was actually very smart. And yet here they lay together, liplocked and sweaty, despite it all.  How had that actually happened?

 

“So how many times should I do this to really work my lats?” Nathan had asked.   

“Twenty?”  Eric had answered.  “Two reps of twenty.  Yeah, that’ll help your lats.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah, um, it’s all about...”

 “You fellas need some help?”  A bearded guy in an actual employee shirt, with a name tag, had come up to them. 

“Uh, no...I got this,” Eric had attempted.

“Wait a second here...”

Nathan had looked at where Eric’s name tag wasn’t. 

“You don’t work here,” Nathan had said, his eyebrow raised, staring directly into Eric’s humiliated soul. 

Eric had felt himself sink into a hole in the Earth’s crust.

“Uh...no.  No I don’t.  Did you think I worked here?  Oh, I’m sorry.  I just thought we were being friendly. I’m sorry...I’ll go away now.”

He’d turned on his heels and started to slink away.

“Wait a sec,” Nathan had said, putting a hand on Eric’s shoulder.

“Thanks, we’re good,” he had added, shooing away the actual employee, who’d shrugged and wandered off. 

“So what was all this really about?” Nathan had asked.

“I don’t know...look, I’m sorry for wasting your time...”

“You haven’t.”

 

“Did you really think I was a trainer when you walked up to me at the treadmill?”

Nathan grinned and finished his glass of wine.  He poured himself another and topped off Eric’s glass. 

“Ah, there’s the central mystery,” Nathan responded.

“You didn’t, did you?  Was this all some kind of crazy eight dimensional double bluff?”

Nathan just laughed.  “Gotta give a guy credit for originality.”

“So wait, you see me, this hapless guy zoned out on a treadmill, clearly not in his element, and...what exactly was your thought process in that moment?”

“Maybe my thought process was, ‘Hey, this guy’s cute.  I’m going to go talk to him. Maybe the ‘do you work here’ thing was kind of...a last minute improvisation.”

“And you just let me hang myself, literally, with that homicidal pulley machine.”

“Or maybe I’m lying now, and I really did think you were a trainer.”

“Put your wine down,” Eric said. 

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Nathan put his wine down.  Eric hit Nathan in the face with a pillow.  Nathan laughed. 

“This has to have been the most confusing, humiliating, and wonderful way I’ve ever been picked up by a guy way, way, way, too hot to be interested in me,” Eric said after a minute.

 The two of them lay there in silence for a bit, sharing the wine.  Eric relit the half-spent joint, and they passed it back and forth until it burned down to a roach.  Eric’s smile returned, floated along the ceiling, watching the two of them.  The cracks in the walls and the flickering shadows got back to the busy work of undermining the structure of the building and obscuring visibility.  The world kept turning, and the story continued on the next page.