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The Real Heroic Thing by Alex Luft | Word Riot
Short Stories

January 15, 2012      

The Real Heroic Thing by Alex Luft

This will be fun, Mom said and drank whiskey from a coffee mug in the front seat of our 1992 Ford Taurus. She has rules against drinking straight from the bottle. She tilted the mug until it was empty and dragged the back of her hands across her lips, cussed because she smeared her bride-of-Frankenstein makeup. She was supposed to be the bride of Frankenstein, I think, or she thought black spandex and mascara were costume enough. There will be other kids inside, she told me.
     While mom was trying to fix her makeup in the rearview mirror, I asked who lived here.
     You remember Jerry, she said.
     No.
     He was at your birthday party last year. He’s in construction.
     If you’re not from around here, you might not know that if someone says they’re in construction, they are mostly unemployed. It’s like how mom won’t drink until it’s after noon because if you drink before noon, you’re an alcoholic.
     When she finished with her makeup, she ran her hands over her breasts and sucked her stomach in and said, well, and then got out of the car. I didn’t want to, and I crossed my arms. She stared at me through the grime on the windshield. Come on, she said.
     No.
     Fine. I’ll leave you in the car. She started across the lawn, her black fake leather boots slicing across the grass. I don’t know why mom thinks we have to go to parties together, or why she always invites her drunk friends to my birthday parties and makes it weird for everyone. But when I told her that I wasn’t going to go to this party, she started doing that thing she does, where she bites her lip and acts like she’s about to cry. And then I give in, just like I do now, and follow her up to the house.
     Mom knocked on the door and Elvis Presley answered. He held a plastic cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He looked mom up and down, practically took her clothes off with his eyes, like I wasn’t standing right there on the porch. He smiled and yelled into the house, man, Jerry you sure wasn’t kidding, and then he invited us in.
     We walked into a living room with smoky, ugly floral furniture and a guy dressed as a cop sitting next to a vampire on the couch. The only light in the room came from the TV, which made it spooky enough. Mom and I stood there.
     From some room off to the side, probably the kitchen, a couple more people came in, a black lady wearing a fake afro and bellbottoms and then a skinny guy in a white t-shirt. A plastic knife blade stuck out of the t-shirt, and this guy, who mom called Jerry, had covered himself in fake blood. Instead of just waving at each other, or maybe even hugging, or doing anything that normal people do, mom and Jerry kissed each other right there in front of everyone, with tongue. We could all see it. After that was over, Jerry seemed to notice me, and he smiled at me sideways, and told me that he’d take me back to where the other kids were. Mom said she needed a drink and went to the kitchen.
     I followed Jerry down a dark hallway of wood-paneled walls, and he said to me, shit, man, I love the Braves.
     What?
     We stopped at the end of the hall. The Braves, he said and nodded toward my shirt. It was my mom’s version of a Halloween costume, my favorite Atlanta Braves jersey and a matching cap she found at Wal-Mart.
     Oh yeah, I said.
     Got a favorite player?
     No.
     Okay, he said, and he opened the door to a bedroom. You kids have fun. We’ll take you out in an hour or so.
     I guessed that by take you out, he meant that we would all be going around trick-or-treating, and I would have told him that I was fifteen and way too old for that shit, but then I saw the other kids in the room. A boy, maybe five, dressed as a Power Ranger—I didn’t know kids still liked that—and a black girl. The only other stuff in the room was a queen bed without sheets and a TV tray with a crappy old TV on top and some kind of ‘80s slasher movie playing. Jerry kind of pushed me in the room and closed the door and that was that.
     The black girl just looked at me. She wore teal sweat pants and a tiny purple sports bra and her hair was pulled into a wisp that stood straight up on her head.
     Who are you supposed to be?
     Jasmine, she said. Who are you supposed to be?
     Who the hell is Jasmine?
     From Aladdin.
     Oh, I said. I looked at the five-year-old, whose lips had turned blue from some sort of candy he was eating. Who’s he?
     I think he’s a Power Ranger.
     No, I mean where’s his mom?
     Out there.
     Oh.
     What do you think they’re doing out there?
     Playing charades, I said. They both stared at me, and the little boy’s mouth hung open in a stupid o. How old are you? I asked the black girl.
     Eleven.
     Your mom brought you here, too?
     Yeah, she said. My mom’s going to take me trick-or-treating later. She said this like it was a nomination for mom of the year and then watched to see if I was jealous or wanted to go along or something.
     Instead I asked her, what are you guys watching?
     I don’t know, she said. That man turned it on and left.
     On the screen, some lady wearing only a man’s shirt walked down a long hall, holding a butcher knife and breathing real heavy, and there was really dark music to let you know that something would happen any second. The five-year-old was still staring at me, so I pointed his attention toward the TV, just in time for him to watch some monster hand shoot out of the darkness and rip away half of the lady’s shirt. When she started running and screaming with one boob flopping out, I laughed. The kids stared at me.
     I sat down on the bed. So what do you think of this Jerry guy?
     Who’s that? Jasmine asked.
     The one with the stupid fake knife and all the blood.
     He’s scary, the little boy said.
     Not as scary as Elvis.
     Jasmine just looked at me.
     So I was done for a while and we just sat there on the bed watching this slasher movie. The one-boob lady must have gotten away, because she was in a police station, unfortunately covered up, and trying to explain to a cop how she was being chased by a madman. And of course the retard cop doesn’t believe her, so when he hears one of the prisoners screaming in the drunk tank, he doesn’t even think the killer’s waiting there to stab out his eyes and rip out his liver.
     Enough of this, I said. I’m leaving.
     Where are you going? Jasmine asked.
     Out.
     I want to go.
     I’m not taking you trick-or-treating.
     Okay. My mom will take me trick-or-treating.
     I looked at the little one. You coming, buddy?
     And what does the little kid do? He starts to cry. I hope I was never like that.
     So I left the bedroom and Jasmine trailed behind me down the wood-paneled hallway. Jerry and my mom and the rest of them had vacated the living room, and the Charlie Brown movie with the giant pumpkin was on the TV. The black girl asked where her mom was. I told her I didn’t know and went to the kitchen, where there were a bunch of dishes stacked in the sink and all these open liquor bottles on the counter. The adults weren’t there, though, so I went through the fridge until I found a carton of eggs. I opened it, only four. Figures, Jerry is in construction. We have to make these count, I told Jasmine, who had crossed the kitchen to this other door and opened it, and I really wish she hadn’t. I’ve seen pornos on the Internet, so I know what sex sounds like. I know about the clapping noises and yelping and the warnings about how someone is coming. Well, this was that, except with more than two people.
     But I guess Jasmine didn’t know, because she took a couple steps down the stairs and called out for her mom. I went to pull her back up, to close the door before she could see anything, but by the time I got there, her mom was leaning into the space at the bottom of the stairs. Her afro was gone, and her shirt, too. I could see the nipple of her left boob hanging out, nothing like the one from the slasher movie.
     It’s okay, baby, she called up the stairs. I’ll be back up in a second. Just go watch your movie. And then a guy’s arm grabbed the lady around the waist, and she laughed, and she disappeared from the bottom of the stairs. I took Jasmine’s hand and pulled her away.
     What are they doing? she asked.
     I told you, I said. Charades.
     I want to go down there.
     No, you don’t. Let’s get out of here.
     But my mom’s down there.
     She’ll be fine. Let’s go have fun.
     Jasmine looked at me.
     I’ll take you trick-or-treating, I told her.
     With one last look at the basement door, she agreed, and we got as far away from that basement as we could. We left Jerry’s house and cut through the tall grass and twilight. We passed the squat houses with their cracked windowpanes, the clunkers in the driveway, the trash rents scattered from the front door to the curb. My mom would never let us live in a place like this. She rents a one-bedroom above someone’s garage in the suburbs, so that she can tell everyone we don’t live in a neighborhood like this.
     What are you doing? Jasmine asked.
     We’re going to egg somebody’s house.
     Who’s house?
     I don’t know yet.
     Why?
     Why what?
     Are we going egg them?
     Because it’s Halloween, I told her. That’s what kids like me do.
     We walked down the street, but I couldn’t decide what we were going to do with the eggs. I thought it would make the most sense to use all four eggs on the same house, because if you wake up and you have one egg smeared on the side of your house, you might just think it was an accident or a misunderstanding. And if I had to pick one house, I wanted to make it a really nice house, because they would probably care more. But all the houses on this street looked crappy. Construction, I thought.
     I wondered if my mom had ever gone to one of these parties before. I know she’s no saint. But she’s not the kind of person who wants to get naked with a bunch of people in Jerry’s basement.
     I want some Snickers, Jasmine said.
     That’s not what we’re doing, I said.
     Let’s just go to one house.
     No.
     Look, she said, and pointed to a couple of kids walking away from one house, and they were all hopped up about the candy in their pillowcases.
     Fine, I said. Those kids did look excited. And the porch light was on.
     So we started walking toward this place, and as I looked at it, it seemed like a really good one for the eggs, probably the nicest one on the street. The brick outside was clean, and someone took care of two little windowsill gardens on either side of the front door. It seemed like a nice place. It seemed like the sort of place that some old person had bought a long time ago, when this was still a nice neighborhood, and they loved it and took care of it, loved it so much that they couldn’t bear to move, even when neighbors got bought up and turned to rental property and the whole block went to shit.
     You don’t even have a sack, I told Jasmine.
     She stopped walking, probably embarrassed. I was afraid I accidentally triggered some sort of crying episode.
     It’s okay, I told her, and I set down the eggs on the curb and we kept walking. You know what to scream, right?
     Trick or treat.
     And what if it’s one of those assholes that wants to hear a joke? Do you know any jokes?
     Again she stopped, and there we were, standing maybe ten feet from the porch, the crappiest kids in the world.
     Just tell them a knock-knock joke, I said.
     Okay.
     Okay. This is how it goes. You say knock-knock.
     Knock-knock.
     And then they say who’s there.
     Who’s there?
     No, they say that.
     Oh.
     So when they say who’s there, you say dishes.
     Dishes.
     And then they’ll say dishes who. And then you say dishes me, who are you?
     She stared at me.
     Just say the joke, I said, and we kept on toward the door.
     Mom’s done crappy stuff ever since I could remember, and who knows what she did when she left me with my grandma at the end of sixth grade. When you’re little, it’s not hard to figure out your mom’s not like the other kids’ moms. I guess she didn’t know any better, though, and thought I was still trapped in that bedroom at Jerry’s place.
     So we made it to the door, and I pushed in on the doorbell and yelled trick or treat. The door opened and we saw this middle-aged white guy, kind of dumpy, balding, wearing one of those t-shirts that looks like the top half of a tuxedo. He was smiling at first and holding a big orange bowl of candy, but then he looked at the two of us, and sort of squinted at Jasmine. Then he put the bowl on some table inside the door that we couldn’t see.
     Where are your parents? he asked.
     Trick or treat, I said again, and Jasmine held her open palm to him.
     I don’t think you should be out without your parents, the guy said, his eyes narrowing on her.
     Just give us some candy, I said. I could tell this guy was going to be a dick. You can just tell sometimes.
     No, he said. I think you should go back home. It’s not safe for you two to be out in this neighborhood.
     Our parents are dead.
     Yeah, right, he said. And he closed the door, just like that.
     Why didn’t he gives us an candy? Jasmine asked.
     Because he’s an asshole.
     Why?
     I don’t know, let’s get out of here. I started to walk away, but she kept standing there, like if she stayed on the porch long enough, the tuxedo shirt guy would forget that she was black and decide to give her the whole bowl of candy. Come on, I told her again, and that really did it, because she started to cry.
     So there was really only one thing I could do. I ran back to the curb and picked up the egg carton–how bad I wished there were more than four eggs in there–and I took the first one out, and I did a full wind-up, like Maddux or Smoltz or Glavine, and fired it right at the tuxedo guy’s door. It sailed past Jasmine’s head and hit right on the peephole, and of course it shattered, and all the yellow goo began sliding down. I have never been so proud.
     The tuxedo shirt guy must have noticed, because the door flew open, and he came out screaming, so Jasmine started to run back toward me. I’ll call the cops, he yelled, and I let another egg fly, and it exploded just a few feet from his head, my chicken splack masterpiece.
     Was this the first time my mom had screwed with Jerry and his friends? Did they all screw at the same time or did they take turns?
     The third egg shot out straight toward the tuxedo guy, but he was quicker than he looked, and when he dodged it, it fell to the porch and left a really great splatter. He really lost it, and he screamed again he was going to call the cops, and he even went back inside to show me he was serious. So I threw the last egg as hard as I could, and it shattered a goddamn window. I’m going to pitch for the Braves.
     We started to run, fast, and I only slowed to check that Jasmine was still behind me. She can run, and she was laughing. I started to laugh, too, and when we were a couple blocks up, we turned onto a side street and slowed down. We walked for a while to catch our breath.
     I don’t think you’re getting any candy, I told her. Sorry.
     I want to go back, she said.
     Back to that guy’s house?
     No. Back where my mom’s at.
     Why would you want to go back there?
     My mom, she said, as if that was a good enough answer. I want to go back there.
     No, Jasmine, I don’t want to go back there. I must have yelled or something, I don’t remember, because her little face started to scrunch up. What? What is it?
     Can you please take me back?
     Fine.
     I hoped they had finished in the basement, that we would just walk back in the house and they would all pretend like nothing happened, the way mom usually did after she’d disappear for a couple days or have a really bad night or get caught driving drunk.
     I told Jasmine that we couldn’t mention the eggs or the guy in the tuxedo shirt if our moms asked. I made her promise, and she asked me to tell her another knock-knock joke. I told her the one with the interrupting cow, and she didn’t get it, which made me laugh harder. I told her the one with the interrupting chicken, and this time she laughed, even though she still didn’t get it.
     The tall grass in front of Jerry’s house looked gray as we stomped across the yard. I held the front door and we went in. All of the adults were back in the living room now, not talking, just watching the TV, the end of that Charlie Brown movie. When we walked in, they looked surprised that we had ever been gone, and when I looked at mom, I knew something was wrong. She had this hollow look, like she couldn’t believe what just happened.
     What’s up? I said, and they all looked at me.
     Are you kids ready to trick or treat? Jerry asked. He wasn’t wearing the fake-blood t-shirt anymore, He wasn’t wearing any shirt at all.
     I looked at my mom, but she looked into the distance at something I couldn’t see. I know that the real heroic thing to do would be to cross the room and take her by the hand and take her far away, and kick Jerry in the balls and tell Jasmine’s mom to get her shit together. But I just stood there like an asshole.
     Jasmine went over to her mom, asked to go out trick-or-treating. Yeah, she said, we can go. She got up and started looking around for her fake afro.
     But the party is just starting, Jerry said, looking at the two women. Elvis and the cop and the vampire watched. No reason anyone has to go anywhere, Jerry said.
     The woman looked at Tasha. Yeah, she said. Mommy’s gonna stay with her friends a little while longer. Why don’t you watch the TV with us a while?
     Tasha looked at me, and I could only shrug.
     Jerry dropped onto the couch next to my mom, put his arm around her waist, cupped her hip with one hand and drank a beer with the other one.
     I looked at her. I’m feeling kind of tired, I said. I think I need to go to bed. What do you think, mom? You think we could go home so that I can go to bed?
     What? Yeah, she said. Yeah, that sounds good. She stood and began to look for her purse, and Jerry repeated that the party was just starting, but she couldn’t hear him.
     We left without saying goodbye to anyone, and on the way out to the car, mom put her hand on my shoulder and kind of leaned on me, and I let her. We climbed back into the car, and as she turned the ignition, I wondered how long Jasmine would have to stay in there, or that Power Rangers kid. Mom pulled out onto the street and started crying.
     When we passed the nicest house on the street, the guy in the tuxedo shirt was standing on his porch talking to a police officer. I flipped him off.
     We pulled onto a main road, but instead of heading home, mom parked the car in the lot in front of a K-Mart. I think I had just one too many, she said. I need a minute.
     Okay.
     She nodded and began to wipe away makeup and tears.
     You know, I told her, if you drive me to the grocery store, and buy me some eggs, we can go back and egg his house. Maybe that will help.

Alex Luft

About the author:

Alex Luft is pursuing an M.A. in English at the University of Missouri, where he earned a B.J. in magazine writing in 2009. His forthcoming fiction publications will appear in the Barely South Review and Word Riot, and his journalistic work has been featured by multiple news outfits.

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