Wednesday, January 23, 2008

At 25, Part 7


It’s Halloween. A Sunday. Bright and mild. Gorgeous. I’m watching the Philadelphia Eagles play the New York Giants while eating a long, messy cheese steak hoagie, trying not to get grease on my official Reggie White Eagles Jersey. It would be a perfect fall day if not for the presence of Dave, who’s already had a few cocktails. And by "cocktails" I mean Old Milwaukee tall boys. Dave bought a couple of two-fers. Two 16oz cans for ninety-nine cents. A nice bargain for the money-strapped, taste-impaired alcoholic. He’s talking incessantly, and I’m trying to ignore him, but it’s impossible. Dave speaks loudly and repeats himself until you acknowledge that you’ve heard him. A public speaker without an audience. He’s not happy that I’ve been attempting to ignore him. Dave does not like to be ignored. People who ignore Dave often come to regret it. His smile is quickly fading. He now has the tight, twitchy, sweaty face of a man who really wants to punch me in the stomach. I’ve told him repeatedly in recent months that I can’t stand the sight of him, but I guess that still doesn’t excuse me from the obligation of speaking to him while he’s drunk. Somebody has to do it. And I’m the only one here.

"Yo, Erv. Erv. Ervin. Erv. Hey! Ervin. Brother. Brother. Erv. Nerd. Ervin. Hey, you! Erv. They’re having a yard sale across the street. You wanna go check out what they got? Erv. Erv. Erv. Erv. Ervin."

I shake my head, while keeping my eyes on the television. "I just wanna watch the end of the game," I say. "It’s the start of the fourth quarter. I’ll go with you after the game."

"What about right now? Now’s good for me."

"How about, like, an hour?"

He finishes off a beer. Crushes the can. Burps. He’s tapping his toes. He can’t sit still. "You know the Eagles suck. They’re just gonna lose anyway."

"Yeah, thanks. I’m sure your psychic abilities are top-notch, but I want to see the end of the game. We’re winning. It’s looking good for the Birds."

"The Birds blow donkey balls. I’m gonna go check out what they got at the yard sale. So, fuck you very much. When I come back with some cool shit, you’re gonna wish you came along."

Dave is a man always on the hunt for an easy fortune. He owns a metal detector and often goes off in search of valuable rare coins. Maybe he thinks a group of lost, confused pirates buried their treasure in South Jersey. He’s forever searching. Digging. Looking for that one special item that will make him an instant millionaire. Dave’s always bringing crap home—old baseball cards, comic books, coins, paintings, weird maps, bottle caps, nudie books—and asking me if I think his newest discovery is valuable. My answer is usually, "It’s probably worth about a nickel, Dave." But he never gives up. He’s relentless in his search for easy money. His foolish tenacity is somewhat admirable. Almost charming. A man and his metal detector. Friends forever. I know he’d choose his metal detector over me any day.

Dave cracks open another beer and takes a peek through the window. "Trick-or-Treaters are already out. Fucking disgusting. Looks like mostly fucking niggers. Half of ‘em don’t even have costumes. Fuckers aren’t even trying. They think they’re coming here for candy, they got another thing coming. I’m not giving my candy to some goddam black punk in a football jersey. At least if they wear a mask I don’t have to see their faces."

I can no longer ignore him. A hot rage is crawling up my throat. Forcing itself out. Like acid reflux, but with words. I say, "What the fuck? They’re kids. They’re just children. Don’t be an asshole. And it’s not your candy. Mom bought that candy. And Mom wants that candy given to any kids that come to the door. So don’t pull your shit today, please. Can’t I just watch the game in peace? Can’t I have a relaxing Sunday? It’s Halloween. It should be a nice, fun day. We give out candy to all the children who come by. That’s the way it works."

"No, not if I can help it. I’m Scrooge," he says, mixing up his holidays. Dave tosses an empty can of beer in my general direction and says, "Incoming!" I duck and it harmlessly hits the wall behind me. He stands up and marches out the door.

Finally, some peace. I watched as the Eagles fall apart. They blow a decent lead late in the game, leading to overtime. Then, just as Dave predicted, the Eagles lose. This bodes poorly for the remainder of the day. The Eagles have lost, and Dave will eventually return. It’s not even dark outside, and Dave is already drunk. I decide to leave. To clear my head. Go to a friend’s house. Or maybe just drive around for awhile. Turn the radio up and cruise.

I look out the window and see Dave talking to the old man who’s having a yard sale. Dave has a beer in one hand and a large painting in the other. The old man is laughing. Dave is laughing. I’ve always admired Dave’s gregarious nature. If he were a little smarter, and a little less of an alcoholic, he would make a great politician.

Before I can make my getaway, Dave returns holding a painting of a clown. He proudly hands it to me. It’s an old, beat-up painting in a tacky gold frame. A sad clown. Chubby and old. Sitting alone at his kitchen table. Like the circus has left town without him. A cigarette dangling from his red clown mouth. I look at the painting and the sad clown looks back, and I hear his nasally clown voice say, "Whattaya want from me, kid?"

"Awesome, ain’t it?" Dave says.

I laugh. "Yeah, it’s a real winner."

"I only paid ten dollars for it. I think I got a steal. The old fucker across the street said he didn’t want to part with it. He said he’s had it since he was a little boy. It might have been painted by someone famous, like Picasso or van Gogh or, like, Norman Rockwell."

"Or John Wayne Gacy," I say.

"Is he a famous artist?"

"Kind of. He is known for his clowns."

"Awesome. If you can find someone to buy it, we’ll split the money. Maybe we could get five hundred bucks for it. Then we’ll get some hookers. We’ll get paid and laid! Nah, I’m just joking. I know you don’t like girls."

"I like girls plenty."

"Sure you do."

"Dave, I’ve had two relationships that lasted more than a year each, Karen and Elisa. I was engaged to be married once. I bought Karen a diamond ring. Elisa used to stay over in my room with me all the time."

"I don’t remember you almost getting married."

"Because you were in jail during those years."

If I didn’t like girls, it would be completely Dave’s fault. When I was little, Dave came home early one morning after a night with some random tramp and made me smell his finger. I nearly passed out from the stench. He just smiled and said that that’s what sex smells like. That’s the stink of pussy, Erv. I’m surprised I got over it. If Elisa’s sex hadn’t been so very pleasant, I might have gone gay.

"Dave, I like the painting. It’s cool. But you might have paid about ten dollars too much for it," I say, with a laugh. I wait for him to laugh with me. He’s Dave the Happy Drunk, right? He should be laughing. Instead, he puts his fist through the sad clown’s face. Dave is no longer the happy drunk. He’s the kind of drunk who punches a defenseless clown painting, then smashes it to bits with his boots.

"You happy now? Huh? Is that what you wanted?" Dave shouts.

I say, "Um, no, not really."

The doorbell rings. A group of children have come for their candy. I hear them giggling. The expectation of sugar-spun delights. I grab the bowl of candy and head for the door.

"White kids only," Dave says, his face red and beaded with sweat. He’s not joking. "No candy to no dumb niggers."

After a moment of stunned silence, I say, "You’re ridiculous."

I open the door and smile. Seven kids. A Batman, a Superman, a Bart Simpson, a kid wearing a bloody hockey mask and holding a plastic machete, a fairy princess, a kid in a football jersey, a tiny kid wearing his large father’s business suit. The children are black, except for tiny business suit boy and Supermen. They’re all very polite. A mother stands behind them, smiling proudly. I give out the candy, make some quick small-talk, ask Superman if he’s captured Lex Luthor yet, then close the door just as my mother pulls her car into the driveway.

I turn around and see Dave right in front of me. He’s so close I can smell his alcohol-tainted breath. He’s holding a small, dull kitchen knife. His lips are dry and cracked, the rest of him is moist.

"You gave them my candy, didn’t you?" he asks, monotone, in a semi-trance.

I feel as if I’ve already been stabbed in the gut. Like my stomach has been perforated. Like acid and waste are leaking through. Like I’m dying slowly on the inside. My hands begin to shake.

"Please stop. This isn’t funny."

"You gave them the fucking candy!"

Dave’s waving the knife like a madman. He’s steps toward me. I think Holy fucking shit, my very own brother is going to stab me and kill me dead! Well, half-brother. I no longer think of Dave as a whole brother. We have different fathers. That makes all the difference. It didn’t used to. Now it does. Because he’s going to murder me. The demon inside him has taken over, and it wants blood.

Dave is coming at me with a knife, so I run. Run for my life.

I give him a gentle shove, allowing myself room to make a clean getaway. Dave chases. He’s slow and drunk and out of shape. He has muscles but isn’t much for cardio. Mom walks through the door just in time to see Dave coming after me with a dull—but still potentially deadly—knife. She screams. I’m able to make it into the bedroom just ahead of my would-be killer, quickly locking the door behind me. Dave slams his fists against the wood. Slams and kicks and punches.

"I’ll fucking kill you! I hate you! I fucking hate you!" It’s not even his voice anymore. I don’t know who this person is standing outside my door with the knife. With the fists of fury. My brother left the building a long time ago. He was replaced Body Snatcher-style by this racist asshole. I wonder whatever became of the real Dave. What happened to the cool older brother who bought me and my best friend Vito tickets for A Nightmare On Elm Street when were too young to buy them ourselves? The brother who let it be known that if anyone in my high school ever messed with me, they’d have to deal with him? The funny, cool brother? Whatever happened to the brother of my youth? The brother who didn’t want me dead? All I know is, Dave is long gone, and this asshole pretender has been making my life miserable for years. Now, he wants to gut me like a pig because I gave out "his" Halloween candy to a few innocent black children.

I’m white. Dave’s white. Are we any better than someone whose skin is darker? Did the cockroaches say, "Oh, hey, sorry, wrong house...we thought there were black people here?" Did the government refuse us our yellow cheese because we’re pale? Did the police let Dave go after he robbed that candy store because he was white? Did I have to return my Free Lunch Card because of the color of my skin? Nah. The only difference between myself and the average black person is that I have to use a helluva lot more sunblock.

Part of the reason Dave hates me is because my mother is always saying, "Ervin, you’re such a good kid. I never have to worry about you. You’re the good one. Thank God you, Ervin. I don’t know what I’d do without Ervin. Ervin this. Ervin that." Dave doesn’t want to hear that shit. He also hates me because I’m always reading, and Dave is practically illiterate. He spent so much as a teenager locked up in juvenile detention that nobody ever bothered to teach him how to read. Nobody cared whether or not he could spell. They only cared that he was punished. Dave hates me because I’m the opposite of him. Or so he thinks. He doesn’t know how much I’ve done wrong. He doesn’t know that I’ve stolen, lied, cheated, did my fair share of drugs. He doesn’t know any of that. He doesn’t know about the late nights at Pizza Tent spent snorting cocaine and cleaning until dawn. He doesn’t know about my weekend trips to Camden to score coke and pot. He doesn’t know what I’ve lost. Fuck Dave for not knowing. Fuck him for thinking he’s the only one who’s had it rough. In this family, we’ve all been through our fair share. We’ve all suffered. All had the same chances. He blew his. I don’t want to blow mine. I’ve always known that I’m meant for something greater. That I’m going to leave something behind. The Great American Novel. A song. A poem. A movie. Something. Before I leave this world, I want to leave something behind that will remind people that I existed. That I was here. Dave wants to take that away from me.

"Dave," Mom says, "I called the police. They’re coming. Stop this." She’s crying, shouting, panting. Dave would never hurt Mom. This much I know. He loves her. Me on the other hand? Well, I think at some point in our lives Dave actually "liked" me, but never "loved," and if he did, he sure hid it well.

I hear the sirens. Dave stops slamming his fists against the door. The fire in my belly rages, the heat leaking out through my flesh. The police knock on the door. I guess Dave won’t kill me today after all.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

At 21, Part 8


I sneak a glance at MJ and catch her staring back, flashing me a brilliant smile, white teeth shining through the darkness. She’s happy to have caught my eye. MJ wants me to look at her. Wants me to know she’s looking at me. Our shoulders are touching, our shoeless, white sock-covered feet. I’m sitting in a dark living room, watching a movie with a group of friends from Pizza Tent. My girlfriend, Elisa, is out at a dance club, doing her bad white girl dances and scoring free drinks from adoring jerkoffs who will tell her: "Your boyfriend lets you out alone? Well, that’s his loss. He must be a real loser." We used to be inseparable, but lately we’ve decided it might be best to give each other some space, to have lives of our own, to allow our relationship to breathe, to try something different. So, Elisa puts on her tightest, smallest clothing, frizzes up her black hair, crams her feet inside tall heels, hides her natural olive-skinned beauty beneath a few layers of garish makeup, then does whatever it is that she does at those ridiculous clubs full of men who want to fuck her. I’m not into the club scene, which is why I’m here tonight with a small group of friends from work, at Mindy’s (a sweet big girl whom I dated briefly and unsuccessfully) lovely suburban home, watching Pump Up The Volume, a bad, completely unbelievable Christian Slater movie that I am somehow enjoying. My back against the couch and my side against soft, warm MJ. Fred, whom I’ve known since elementary school, eyes me suspiciously from across the room. He sees how close I’m sitting to MJ, rolls his eyes, mouths What the fuck are you doing? He couldn’t care less whether or not I cheat on Elisa; he just hates that all the girls he likes seem to develop crushes on me. I can’t help it that I’m so damned cute. It’s the dimples. Girls love the dimples. It has to be the dimples. What else could it be? My pale, sun-frightened skin? My overall lack of strength? My super stylish feathered dirty blonde hair? My low-paying job? My scarred left hand? My large comic book collection?

MJ rests her head on my shoulder, and I suddenly feel uncomfortable, because it feels nice. I do have a girlfriend, after all, and what’s happening here is verging on inappropriate behavior. Sure, Elisa has definitely cheated on me, once for certain, probably many more times than that, but I’ve never cheated on her. And I don’t want to start now. Well, I do want to cheat on Elisa, right now, with MJ—I want to suck on MJ’s long tongue in the worst way, want to lick her face, bite her nipples, masturbate while she nakedly waves her pompoms and jumps up and down above me—but I don’t want to be that guy. The guy who cheats on his girlfriend just to get even. The guy who doesn’t take his relationship seriously. The guy who screws the first sweet young high school girl with strong calves who tempts him. I love Elisa, more than I should, probably. But I do love her. Strangely, tonight is the first night she’s been out without me at a club where I haven’t been racked with jealousy. I’m weirdly numb. Maybe it’s because MJ is distracting me. Or maybe I’m simply more mature than I used to be. It’s sure as hell not because I trust Elisa. Heh, no way, not that.

These days, I am Elisa’s bitch. She’s usually out at the club until two or three or in the morning, drinking and dancing and whatever else. And I’m usually in my bed at two or three in the morning, waiting for Elisa to call, hoping that she’ll grace me with her presence, hoping that she’ll drive her drunk ass over to my house, hoping that she’ll be horny and will want to fuck me. That’s what I do now. Lie in bed and wait for my girlfriend to call. I wait to get fucked.


It’s almost eleven p.m. when I excuse myself and head outside to have a cigarette. It’s cold and blustery on this early February night, the weekend before Valentine’s Day. I have to leave by one in the morning, have to be in my bed sitting by the phone, in case Elisa calls and wants to come over. Just as I light my smoke, MJ sidles up next to me. We’re standing in front of Mindy’s house, in the driveway, watching the cars pass by. She’s wearing a sweater and a short skirt, and she starts shivering immediately.

"How you doing tonight, sexy?" she asks, pushing her brown hair away from her eyes.

I look around. "You talking to me?"

"Well, duh!"

I smile, appreciating the compliment, however ridiculous it sounds to me.

MJ is a senior in high school, a smart girl who’ll be heading off to college in the fall. She also looks terrific in a cheerleader uniform, just the right amount of bounce and wiggle in that tall frame. She’s not a skinny girl. MJ has curves. She’s soft all over. I’d like to sink into her, disappear.

"It’s freezing," she says, her teeth chattering.

I put my arm around her. "That better?"

She nods. "Much."

"It’s funny, at home I don’t like to sit in the dark because of the cockroaches. They tend to stay away in the light. In the dark, I always feel like something is crawling on me."

She laughs. Maybe she thinks I’m kidding. "If we were alone in the dark, I’d be crawling all over you. Speaking of bugs, where is Elisa tonight?"

"Out. Who knows. Drunk somewhere. Don’t care."

"Are you going to see her tonight?"

I take a deep drag, then toss the cigarette into the street. "Maybe. If she calls me later. She might come over. Sometimes she comes over in the middle of the night."

"For a booty call?"

"Heh, yeah, sure."

She nuzzles in closer, wraps her arms around my waist. Her mouth brushes my neck. I tingle, itch, warm all over.

"It doesn’t bother you that she cheats on you all the time? There’s a lot of stuff I’ve heard about that you don’t know, I’m sure. Just from, like, hearing her talk on the phone I know she’s playing you for a fool. She might love you. Probably she does, but she is not a good girlfriend. She’s terrible. Dump her. Move on."

"And then what? I should date who? You?"

She beams. "Sure. Why not me? I’d be an excellent girlfriend. I’m smart. I’m cool. I don’t cheat. I wouldn’t make fun of you for being a fan of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210.’ Okay, maybe I would make fun of you for that, but, like, affectionately."

I laugh. Stop laughing. Turn serious. "When I first started dating Elisa, I thought, ‘Well, this is the girl for me. She’s the one. I’m going to spend my life with this girl.’ You know, I guess I don’t want to think I was wrong about her."

"You were."


We exchange smiles.

"Ervin," MJ begins, lifting her head from my shoulder and looking into my eyes. "If you stay with her, you’re going to be miserable. What are you going to do, work at Pizza Tent all your life? Marry Elisa? Struggle to make ends meet? Have a few kids that may or may not be yours. Seriously, Ervin. I mean, really? I know you want more out of life. I know you want to take pictures and write. I know you want to be creative. You can do so much more than you’re doing now. You’re wasting your life."

"What should I do?"

"Go back to school. Dump Elisa. Ask me out. Kiss me. Don’t lower yourself for someone else. Find someone who’ll lift you up. Bring you to another level. But where would you find such a girl?" She pauses dramatically, scratches her chin. "Wait, I know. You’ve already found her, and she’s me!"

"It’s not that easy, MJ."

She grins. "Isn’t it?"

Briefly, I wonder.

Then I kiss her softly on the mouth. She tastes like Juicy Fruit. Sweet, sugary, warm. MJ doesn’t wear lipstick, just a thin layer of cherry lip balm. She smells faintly of lemons and grease, as all of us who worked at Pizza Tent tonight do. Her nails dig into my back. Her breaths are heavy. I pull away.

"Shit," I say, licking my lips. "I shouldn’t have done that."

"Then why did you?" MJ asks, her lips still kissably posed.

"Because I wanted to."

I take MJ’s hand and we walk back inside. Now, all I have to do is be strong. When Elisa calls at three in the morning, I simply have to let the phone ring. When she calls for sex, I won’t answer. Easy enough, right?

I don’t want to be someone’s fuck toy. I want to be someone’s boyfriend.

Back inside the house, MJ lays her head on my chest. Her satiny hair tickles my cheek. I haven’t felt this content in months. This happy. This alive. I suddenly feel as if I have a future. Feel as if I can make something of my life. The future is open. MJ’s lips are open. And I want in.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

At 25, Part 6


I’m behind the counter at the liquor store, ringing up customers, putting that much-needed bottle of vodka into the shaky, cracked, dirty hands of an amiable local alcoholic. Working here often makes me sad, watching the same faces come in day after day, every few hours, filling their pockets with little bottles of booze. The bigger the alcohol problem a person has, the smaller the bottles they buy. The hardcore alcoholics prefer the tiny 50ml airplane bottles. They’re easy to hide, quickly consumed, and can be casually disposed of without anyone noticing. In a way, I consider myself a pharmacist. I’m giving people the medicine they need to feel better. To escape their problems. To run and hide inside themselves. Of course, the medicine I’m giving them will probably kill them eventually, but hey, it’s hard to find any medicine that doesn’t have a few negative side-effects.

The liquor store that currently employs me is located in a small shopping center, connected to a video store, a bank, a Chinese take-out place, and a supermarket. We get a nice mix of people here: alcoholics, future alcoholics, little old ladies playing their numbers, stoners and gangsters buying blunts, hard-working manual labor guys buying a six-pack after work, men and women in suits purchasing a nice bottle of wine for dinner, a few more alcoholics, and a steady stream of teenagers pretending to be adults. The store is located in a decent neighborhood. My co-workers are, without exception, cool. The girls who work at the video store are cute and flirty and let me watch the new releases a day early. The food from No. 1 Chinese Garden is great. Not a bad place to work, all in all. It’s a dead-end job that will get me nowhere but will pay my bills in the short-term. I’m in no hurry to get on with my life. Feel no great rush to pick a real career. I’m fine standing still. Fine smoking cigarettes and playing video games until the sun comes up. Fine bullshitting with friends, unloading beer trucks, and delaying my future for as long as possible. Fine spending as much time away from home as possible. Away from Dave.

Tonight, I’m working with Joe, who’s recently become my best friend. Joe’s a big, hairy, funny, guitar-playing, KISS-loving, chain-smoking teddy bear of a guy. Whenever I work with Joe, we have a great time. We have the same sense of humor. Also, he’s fat and I’m skinny, so clearly we make a great team. If I were the least bit funny and not deathly afraid of public speaking, we could be a comedy team and take our act on the road. Of late, people have been calling us Jay & Silent Bob, after the characters in Kevin Smith’s Jersey-set film Clerks. Joe’s a great guy, but more importantly, he’s big and intimidating, and I like to think of him as my bodyguard. He’s a gentle guy, and probably wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he looks like he’d be able to rip someone’s head right off.

Working here, I feel like I need protection. Liquor stores, in general, are not the safest places to work. Criminals always rip off liquor stores. It’s tradition, I think. And lately, over the past month, there’s been a series of liquor store robberies in the South Jersey area. Three liquor stores within five miles of mine have been robbed recently, by a guy wearing a ski mask and claiming to have a gun inside a paper bag. Guns frighten me. I can’t even hold one without shaking. If I ever owned a gun, I’m sure I’d accidentally blow my face or my pecker off. So, the idea that some asshole might come in here one night and point a gun in my face makes me feel like I’m going to piss my pants. I haven’t pissed my pants in years, but I think a gun in the face could induce an unwanted release of urine. You know, what the hell, for old time’s sake. And if I do piss my pants, Joe will never let me live it down.

It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and the store is empty except for the two of us. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill CD plays on a nearby radio, because I love music by angry, pretty women. My CD purchases of late have been by the likes of Poe, Tracy Bonham, Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco, and Hole. I am a boy who likes girl music. I tried to deny it at first when Joe called me out on my chick-music-loving ways, but now I flaunt my lady-music CDs.

Joe hasn’t been his usual talkative self today. He looks uncomfortable, like a guy with a secret. He lights a Marlboro off of another Marlboro, then sets it down in the already overstuffed glass ashtray on the counter. Joe never stops smoking. Maybe when he’s sleeping. Maybe.

"What’s up, man?" I say, lighting a cigarette of my own. I’ve only recently become a full-time smoker, which makes me a total hypocrite. I spent my childhood trying to convince my mother to quit filling her lungs with inhaled poison, and now here I am destroying my body just as she’s done for most of her life (even during the nine months that I resided in her belly, by the way, which I sarcastically cite as the reason for any and all medical problems that befall me: as in, "Hey, Mom, the doctor says my colon is spastic. Probably because you smoked when you were pregnant. Thanks, Mom, way to go."). One night, after some especially sweaty sex, I asked to bum a cigarette off of my then-girlfriend, because she always seemed to enjoy a cigarette post-sex. Then I found myself bumming cigarettes from her more and more. Right after we broke up, I went out and bought my own pack of cigarettes. Didn’t even think about it. Just did it. I was now a smoker. My only thought at the time was They got me! Bastards!

Joe’s eyes go glossy. "I’ve got something to tell you."

"No, I will not blow you for a dollar."

"I’m serious." He rubs his eyes, looks away from me, and says, "Remember how I told you about that one and only girl I had sex with?"

I nod. "Sure. Your old roommate."

"Well, I may have exaggerated a little bit, about the sex."

I say, "Well, it’s no big deal, really. Why didn’t you think you could tell me that?"

"I just didn’t want you to think I was some kind of loser who couldn’t get laid."

I rest a gentle hand on his shoulder and offer a soothing smile. "Joe, why would you think you couldn’t tell me the truth? We’re best friends, and I already think you’re a loser, so what difference does it make?"

Joe’s dark brown eyes go wide for a second, a moment of panic maybe, then he laughs and says, "You motherfucker. I hate you."

"You love me. I’m adorable."

He gives me the once-over. "Well, you are kind of cute. Those dimples are hot. I’d fuck you, well, if you wore a pretty wig or something. I don’t know that I could sleep with someone wearing a backwards baseball cap. That might be kind of, um...really fucking gay."

I laugh ‘til I cough, then I turn my head and notice that Dave is standing on the other side of the counter. My brother. Grinning like he just found a dollar on the floor. Doing what he does best. Appearing out of nowhere. I don’t want to see him. Because he always wants something. I’ve been wondering how long it was going to take him to show up here. Dave’s an alcoholic and I work in a liquor store. I guess the lightbulb finally went off in his head after a year.

"What’s up, Erv?" Dave says, his grin widening, showing off that sexy gap up top where his tooth used to be. "You work at a liquor store and you never bring home free beer. What’s up with that? Hook me up!"

Joe says he has to go take a dump, then walks to the back of the store.

"What do you need, Dave?" I ask.

"How about a case of beer on the five-finger discount?" he says. "Phil’s out in the truck. How about we load up the back of the truck with a few cases of beer on the house and call it even? You still owe me for that time I robbed the candy store for you."

"You didn’t rob the candy store for me."

"You ate the chocolate, man. You ate it. You ate the candy, so you were, like, an accessory."

"I was what? Eight years old? I was just a kid."

"Erv, bro, pal, buddy, all I’m sayin’ is, I hooked you up back then, and right now I could use some free beer. I could use the hook-up."

I try to ignore the shooting pains that are suddenly bouncing around in my belly, but the discomfort causes me to bend over and lean on the counter for support. "Dave, I can’t give you any free beer. I’m not about to get fired just so you can get drunk. I can give you my employee discount. Twenty percent. But that’s it."

"That’s fucking weak." He takes a step back and shakes his head, then forces a smile. "Sure, whatever. That’s cool, man. Don’t even sweat it. Hey, it was worth a shot, right? Can’t blame a dude for trying."

I glance up at the surveillance camera that’s pointed at the register. It doesn’t record sound, only captures grainy black and white video. "There’s been a bunch of robberies in the area lately. That liquor store right down the street got ripped off last week. The owner’s really nervous that he’s next. I can’t have any kind of funny business going on here at all. Not now. It’s a bad time."

"You’re not going to get robbed," he says matter-of-factly.

"You don’t know that."

He looks around, makes sure no one but me is around to hear him. "I do know it. Because you’re my brother, man. That’s why. I wouldn’t do that to you."

"I don’t get it." Then, suddenly, I get it.

I wish I had a time machine. I want to go back ten seconds and then cover my ears. Want to not know what I now know. "Fuck you, Dave. You’re lying."

"Am I? Remember all those cuts I had last week? Those scrapes and bruises? That was from hiding in the prickly bushes. I hid for fucking hours until the smoke cleared. Every time I went to get up, some police car would roll by. I was paranoid, let me tell ya."

I quietly say, "Shit, Dave. Don’t tell me these things. Damn it."

"I’m just sayin', man, if you’re worried about being robbed like those other stores, don’t. And if you tell anyone what I just told you, I will fucking destroy you." He stares at me, lets me know he’s not joking. Then he smiles and says, "I’m just joking. Let me get a pack of smokes, a sixer of Bud, and some rolling papers. You can buy ‘em for me and I’ll pay you back next week. That cool?"

"Sure," I say. "That’s cool."

A minute later, Dave’s gone and Joe’s standing beside me, his guitar in his hands. He says, "You okay, Erv? You look like you’ve seen a ghost."

"Nah, I’m cool."

Joe sits down on the stool and starts strumming on his Gibson Les Paul, his prize possession.
"You wanna come over after work and play some football? I’m in the mood to kick your ass."

"What a coincidence. I’m in the mood to have my ass kicked."

He adds, "And I promise not to break the controller again if I lose. I just hate to lose."

"I know you do," I say. "I don’t mind losing so much. I’m used to it. I’m good at losing."

A customer comes in and buys a six-pack of Corona and a lime, and I ring him up as Joe plays a few seconds of "Desperado" on his guitar. Another customer comes in and buys a cheap bottle of wine. A short black man comes in and says he needs something to get his lady "in the mood." A teenager comes in and, after I refuse to sell him beer, says, "Come on, man. Don’t be an asshole. Why are you being such a prick? I won’t tell anybody." Customers come and go. Joe plays his guitar, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I feel content.

The night passes quickly. We are not robbed at gunpoint. We close the store. Joe counts the money and we leave. We stop at 7-11 for soda and snacks. Joe kicks my ass at the Sega video football game we play every night. I’m always the Eagles. I almost always lose. Life goes on. I vow to never again think of what Dave told me tonight. I’m going to put the information into a secret compartment in my brain. A locked compartment. Then I’m going to lose the imaginary key. Dave was probably just kidding anyway.

Sure, that’s it.

It’s all a big joke.