Short Stories

April 15, 2010      

Bad Cheetah by Andy Henion

My mother, in bra and pantyhose, is kicking another man out of her life, only this one we like. His name is Roland Reynolds but everyone calls him Cheetah: a tall, easygoing long-hauler with big cats on his forearms. He sits with a sleepy smile on his face and his feet up on the recliner as my mother rages, her finger inches from his handsome face.

Cheetah, it seems, has offended.

“That shit may fly with the truckstop crowd,” my mother crows, “but not with me, asshole.”

My best friend Gordon and I watch the carnage thigh-to-thigh from the couch. Gordon is enjoying this immensely, I know, based on the fact that my mother is panty-free under the flesh-colored hose. When Sarah gets going like this, she’s oblivious to anything but the focus of her wrath.

“Pack your crap and be gone when I get home,” she says. At this point the banished beau typically begs for forgiveness, but Cheetah simply winks in compliance, and Sarah sighs and turns to the sofa.

“Joey, there’s lasagna in the fridge and pop in the garage. Call me if you need me. And Gordon? Quit staring at my crotch, son.”

*

We’re sharing a joint in my basement bedroom. Cheetah and I sit on the bed while Gordon stands ready with the crossbow. Lined up against the wall is a series of mannequins from the department store my mother manages. The first six have photos of former boyfriends taped to their plastic skulls and are in various stages of degradation. One has steel wool for pubic hair and a crude vagina carved into its crotch. Others are covered in happy faces and swastikas. All are pierced with arrows from the crossbow.

We’ve attached a digital image of Cheetah’s face to Mannequin No. 7. On its arms, in brown and yellow marker, I’ve replicated the cheetah tattoos. Cheetah squint-eyes my handiwork and christens me a damn fine artist. Gordon pats him on the back and tells him it will be a damn fine honor to perforate his sternum.

Once we finish the jay, Gordon goes into his routine. He raises the weapon, closes an eye and spends long moments regulating his breathing. “I love Sarah Jane Arnold,” he whispers finally, and fires an arrow midpoint into the mannequin’s torso. Gordon is a crack shot with the crossbow, even stoned.

Cheetah grabs his abdomen and makes a choking sound. He falls back on the mattress and laughs. I survey the damage. The steel tip of the arrow has pierced the cement wall deep enough, I know, to draw moisture. About a year ago I put a padlock on my bedroom door, and so far, at least, Sarah is respecting my privacy. But if she ever gets a wild hair and busts in here and sees the watery, moldy mess we’ve created, she’ll kick my ass, a scenario that causes frequent and extreme consternation. When I’m not baked, that is.

*

We kill the lasagna and watch reality television well into the afternoon. Then Cheetah takes a private call and proceeds to invite us along for a ride. He loads his few personal belongings into a box and we pile into his rig, a shiny black Peterbilt with a large compartment for sleeping or, as Gordon surmises, canoodling with truckstop whores. Cheetah laughs and shakes his head. But Gordon has turned serious, the way he does when he’s coming down.

“So. Roland. You’re pretty blasé for a man been kicked to the curb.”

Cheetah’s sleepy smile doesn’t change. It never seems to change.

“Take life as it comes, Gordo.”

This kind of reasoning doesn’t hold up for Gordon, I know. He comes from one of those make-your-own-destiny families, with an ultraconservative father who put himself through community college and made a mint in commercial construction. The truth is his old man is wound pretty tight (who gets their kid a freakin’ crossbow for his birthday?) and sometimes I think the berry hasn’t fallen far from the bush. Gordon gets these singular obsessions and just will not let go. In middle school it was Bruce Lee and all things ninja; for two years solid it’s been my mother.

Gordon turns in his seat to face Cheetah. I sit between them, not wanting to be here. I’m not one for confrontation.

“You upset a wonderful woman today,” Gordon says. “You screwed the pooch, Long Hair. Perhaps you’d like to bare your soul before it’s too late.”

Too late for what? I wonder, and apparently Cheetah is thinking the same thing. His brow arches as he smokes a cigarette and works the gearshift.

“Thing you’ve got to learn,” he says, “is that women like their men dangerous until they show a hint of danger.”

“Danger?” says Gordon, and now he’s nearly yelling. “And what so-called danger do you—”

“Hey,” I interrupt, “where we going, anyway?”

Cheetah pauses before answering, finishing his cigarette and flicking the butt out the window.

Gordon continues glaring but is smart enough, at least for the time being, to keep his mouth shut.

“Gonna see a guy,” Cheetah says, “about a thing.”

*

Turns out, Cheetah’s guy manages the adult superstore out on Interstate 69. He’s a short, fat specimen with beady eyes behind rose-colored shades and black sideburns that run to his lips. He’s leaning on the counter of the otherwise empty store as we file in.

“Ain’t got much time, friend,” he says. Cheetah spreads his arms and makes a what-can-I-do face, and the two of them look down at us.

“Gentlemen,” says the fat man, “we need to talk in private. Help yourself to my personal viewing room.” He sweeps his hand toward a door in the far corner of the store. I shrug and head that way, psyched at the prospects, while Gordon begins his protest.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. If you think I’m—”

I keep moving. Gordon will come eventually. He makes this show of being disgusted by porn, but in the end he’ll sit and watch just about anything you put in front of him, complaining the whole time about the exploitation of women, the end of civilized society, so on, so forth. He used to fuss about weed the same way.

I open the door to a bank of flat screens. One of them has the still image of a bare-chested brunette pointing at someone off-screen. I sit down and hit Play. The brunette is actually summoning a man and his hardened member while straddling another man on a bed. My cell rings. It’s my mother.

“Hey Ma, how was work?”

The brunette puts the man’s member in her mouth.

“It’s after seven, where the hell are you?”

“With Cheetah.” There’s no sense lying; Sarah would sniff it out in a heartbeat.

“Oh my fucking god. Where?”

“We’re fine Mom, no big—”

Where, goddammit?”

“At the Tiger Den on 69.”

The man grabs the brunette’s hair with both hands and pulls her head forward. The brunette gags.

My mother says, “Stay there, I’m sending the cops,” and clicks off.

“Jesus Hubert Christ,” says Gordon, entering the room. “Look at that filth.”

And we do, for several more minutes anyway, until the men reposition the brunette to their liking. Gordon makes a disgusted sound and begins thumbing through a stack of DVDs. I tell him Sarah is sending the cops. “Excellent idea,” he says, without looking up.

“This place needs to be shut down.” I watch more of the movie. The men are doing something to the brunette I didn’t know was possible. She howls, though it doesn’t sound particularly convincing.

Gordon holds up one of the movies from the stack. His eyes are bulging.

Holy. Mother. Mary.

I take it from him. On the cover a naked man resembling Cheetah is embracing another man, also naked, under the title Backdoor Butlers 4.

“Could be him,” I say.

Could be? Look at the blessed tattoos.”

Yes, indeed.

“That son of a bitch,” Gordon snarls. “He probably gave Sarah Jane the AIDS.” He pounds a fist on the counter, knocking movies to the floor. “That hippie son of a bitch.”

*

Cheetah explains the scam as we leave the porn shop. It involves a rich old widow, a bogus contract for a new roof, a huge payment. For an easy hundred, all Gordon and I have to do is wear hardhats and circle the mansion, pointing up and looking dour. Her eyesight is so bad, Cheetah says, the old bag will think we’re seasoned roofers.

Now, I don’t consider myself particularly naïve. In the two months he lived with us Cheetah made only one cross-country run with his rig, yet he was always flush with cash. I knew he was up to something, but swindling old ladies? Man-on-man porn? I almost wish he was dealing.

This is the point where Gordon should be raising holy hell, lecturing Cheetah about responsibility and all that, but the kid’s in a zone: jaw set, fists clenched, eyes locked on the dirt lot. I haven’t seen him this livid since big Billy Berbin called his father a Nazi and Gordon got after him with his nunchucks.

He bends to tie a shoe, letting Cheetah get ahead. “We’ll take the work van,” Cheetah says, heading toward a nondescript white vehicle. Gordon rises, takes several long strides and trips Cheetah from behind. He goes hard to the ground and turns with a scowl. I’ve never seen the scowl—it’s menacing, a grownup scowl, a scowl that promises pain—and I wish suddenly for a customer pulling up, a freak hailstorm, anyfuckingthing.

“You little motherfucker,” Cheetah growls. He stands and advances, and I wonder what Gordon will do now—he’s a foot shorter and stick-thin, but smart, smart enough to have a handful of sand. He does the old sand-in-the-eye trick and Cheetah yells and brings his hands to his face, staggering back. Gordon pounces, using the bigger man’s momentum to take him down.

It’s a dreadful sight. Gordon is perched on Cheetah’s back flailing his scrawny arms. “Bad Cheetah,” he yells with each punch. “Bad Cheetah.” Cheetah, meanwhile, is wiping the final bits of sand from his eyes; he’ll be in control momentarily and God knows what he’ll do. Thoughts roll through my head. Did Ma get through to the cops? The old sand-in-the-eye trick really works, no shit. Cheetah has a buck knife on his belt—I hope he doesn’t pull it; we’re only fifteen, for Christ sake. Does he really like it in the ass?

So here’s my best friend defending my mother’s honor and what am I doing but standing around thinking my idle thoughts, avoiding what should be my confrontation, and Cheetah begins to rise with Gordon attached to his neck like a ninety-pound leech. With one arm he reaches back and flips my boy to the ground. Gordon lands hard on his back and immediately clutches at his chest, gasping for air.

Cheetah leans over and spits on him.

I haven’t moved. The entire time, I haven’t moved a goddamn muscle. Cheetah sees the look on my face and sneers.

“Piss your pants, did you?” He moves my way, motioning down at Gordon. “At least he got in the game.”

“Yeah? At least I don’t suck cock, porn-man.” I don’t know where this comes from. I feel sick in the chest after I say it. I prepare to run.

But Cheetah stops, lips parted, eyes wide.

“You don’t know, do you? He laughs. “How precious is this? He. Doesn’t. Fucking. Know.

At this point the fat man sticks his head out the door and says something about a buddy cop of his calling. Cheetah ignores him. His eyes hold mine.

“Your old lady,” he says. “Where do you think I first met her?”

“Fuck you,” I say.

“Cheetah,” says the fat man. “They’re on their way. Get those little shits out of here.”

“On the set,” Cheetah says. “I met her on the set.”

“Bullshit,” I say, but I know he’s right. My mother hasn’t always managed a department store, yet we’ve always had the house and food and nice things. I remember her telling me, six or seven years ago, that she entertained people for a living. In my little-kid mind that meant a singer, or even a magician. She never filled in the gap.

The sick feeling has turned to anger. I’m trembling all over.

“That’s right. It was me and three other guys, in fact. You ever hear of a train, son?”

Cheetah makes a crude humping motion. Gordon has made it to his hands and knees and is crawling forward. As he comes to his feet I see blood from a nostril but the same rabid expression. The fucking kid will never quit.

Cheetah—” says the fat man, but I don’t hear the rest. I take the front, while Gordon takes him from behind.

About the author:

Andy Henion was born the day before man landed on the moon and has felt a bit flighty since. He lives somewhere cold and flat with some people and an animal. His fiction, online and print, has appeared previously in Word Riot, as well as in Spork, Ink Pot, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, Storyglossia, Thieves Jargon, Diddledog and numerous other publications.

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