Lo Mary passed the joint to Kerry, and it was good, I guess. Earlier that evening, something had possessed little Kerry to go to Burger King and ask how much a ten gallon bucket of fries might cost. When he heard it was only like twelve bucks, he crossed himself and bought one.
Insert Hills is this dying folk's community outside Roseville. They bulldozed all the brush and the immigrants. Now, like an optical illusion, the same three houses appear at random, while a ribbon of sidewalks and scrubbed black streets wrap round the lawns like a set of perfect hairs.
In Insert Hills, I was visiting my aunt. I rode the Greyhound by myself to get here and they had to detox me at the gates. There are ladies there who camp by their curtains, keeping track of the dog walkers and making sure everyone scoops their dogshit into plastic bags. I'd like to hear one of those ladies say dogshit. Just once.
My aunt's house had spurred this big uproar. She'd had the gall to stick a garden gnome in the front yard. Well sweet Pete, the committees purred, that just looks tacky. Think of Miguelito, who mows the lawn. He might trip. I don't know if he speaks English, do you? I don't know if we're allowed to pay for it if he dies. And who would perm the lawns? The gnome has to go. So my aunt, being huffy but ultimately pale, drank a bottle of champagne and drilled out the gnome's eyes in the secrecy of her backyard.
I can't hang around my aunt. She'll start crying about her nails or showing me photos. Endless photos of my dad souring up on his first girlfriend or crashing his motorcycle. Cheery stuff. My aunt imagines we'll rebel against my dad, she and I. She also hopes I'll stock up on bottled water for the apocalypse. With the third night of my visit looming, I said I was going for milk. She moved her wineglass to get the car keys and nodded and told me to have a good time. When I left, she was putting cucumbers on her eyes and muttering, maybe about her neighbor Mr. French, who's burly for seventy, and still married. Sorry Auntie.
That night, it was all about Mary and Kerry, whom I nearly punched when they told me their names. They said no, seriously. They were so earnest. His jeans had fake rips. Her sundress was strapless. They were brother and sister.
I found them while opening my aunt's garage. They came strolling in from some direction. Directions aren't real in those retirement neighborhoods. Those places are enough to make you believe in infinity, or euthanasia.
Mary and Kerry broke some noise ordinances when they saw me. They were visiting their grandfather, and were famished for physical contact with the young and the spry. I was a wee fat lad, but I'd do. They ran up the driveway, waving and yapping. I felt like a raccoon. Their eye light was intense.
But they just wanted to hang out. They were earnest. Grandfather's house was empty, they said, so I should follow them. I should? Kerry scored some pot was their triumphant and correct answer. I followed them.
Grandfather had gone to the restaurant with his buddies after a long day of golfing. He'd forgotten his clubs, but remembered his flask, so he'd been all set. There was just one restaurant inside the community gates. I swear, this place its own windmills and landfill it could work as a colony on the moon. My Auntie and I went to that lone restaurant the first day I got to Insert Hills. As we ate, she remarked how fat each stray old man was. Except for Mr. French, of whom she said nothing. Instead, when she saw him, she squeaked, and shoveled extra salad.
Well what shall we do, what shall we do, I said. Kerry's got a trophy. Oh? Yes, bring it out, Kerry. Little Kerry zipped into the hall closet, where he had stashed his prize. A ten-gallon bucket of Burger King fries. We were very solemn.
How the hell did Kerry get all this stuff? Pot? Fries? Mary had watched TV and messaged her friends while eating ice cream all day. Kerry was sixteen, and just had to drive Mary's Honda into Roseville. Into the danker bits. The danker bits of Roseville? There are danker bits? You mean there's a slum there, somewhere between the factory outlet stores? Each one is a big square slab of stone, distinguished only by their sign. The JCPenny slab. The Big Five slab. The church. The church was a slab with a couple sticks, a limp whisper of a cross.
So we had a ten-gallon bucket of fries. I was high by that point, so I pointed at it and said, that's symbolic. So romantic. They nodded like Buddha. How quickly we suburban kids turn into laughtracks, or poets, or wallpaper critics. It depends on where you get your drugs.
So we had a ten-gallon bucket of fries. I for one can just ruminate, I said. They said I'd have to clean it up. Maybe we should go somewhere. The carpet was tasteful. The lights were perfect. The fireplace was fake. There was a hint of flowers and the loitering idea of coffins. Yes, maybe we should go somewhere.
As the guest of honor, I got to drive Mary's Honda. Kerry sat in the backseat, hugging his fries. Mary sat up next to me, and I became aware of many shades of brown. Her skin I would fumble and call caramel. Her eyes, mocha. Mine is a generation of kids with coffee flavors for adjectives. Mary asked me what music I liked. She was all about earnest. I was quite high.
Where was there to go but round and round? They were playing Seventies music on the radio station. Our grandfathers and aging aunts, they frowned at this music. We gagged. Round and round we went, James Taylor cooing, houses never changing. It occurred to us to wonder why anyone would want to die here. I imagined sweet dreams and flying machines crashing into each manicured yard. I imagined the bedrooms, which I knew were behind the second windows from the right. Humidifiers. Walk in closets. The best blankets pensions and social security could buy. Still, every night, after you wonder why Carson ain't on anymore, when you turn to hold your lovely wife of eighty, hands nearly skeletal, trembling all the way down, pretending and pretending, is that good? Doesn't it feel like you're wrapped in plastic? What if you're alone? What then?
We sure as hell wouldn't be alone, we concluded. We had our bucket of fries. Should we go to Roseville for food, maybe a drivethrough? Won't you look down upon me Wendy's, won't you help me make a stand?
Or, said Kerry.
Or we can do this and he rolled down his window, grabbed a handful of fries, and chucked them out. He was a genius. It quickly became an assembly line. Kerry would toss some out with his right hand and hand some up to Mary with his left. With all the circling lanes, soon we were running over our own trails. We had fries and fry residue all over the streets. Potatoes on black. Our God of grease against their sanctity. It was thrilling; I'd never felt like that. Every wire loosed itself from my sockets. I pounded on the steering wheel, shrieking and laughing. Smooshed and well lit on the sidewalks and streets, the fries looked like streaks of fallen stars. We got a few on some golf carts. We stained a few streetlights. No one was up that late, or home that early. We were in a pocket dimension. We were in our own whirlpool. We exhausted an entire ten-gallon bucket of fries.
Sadness didn't sink in quickly. As we drove back to Grandfather's house, every wide curve made us suck in our breath. Mary started squeezing the flab around my sides. She asked my favorite animal, and if I liked girls. She was all about earnest.
It hit Kerry the hardest. He turned sour as soon as we stepped in the living room. He announced he was sick; Mary and I looked up quickly from making out and nodded. She had the laces off my shoes when her grandfather walked in.
Lo it was a classic stillframe. Mary and I tangled on the couch. Grandfather, comically short, haggard and lumpy all over. For ages he stood there with enormous eyes, eyes crunched by equally enormous wrinkles. Then he sniffed. Like the last gasp of a water heater, he sighed. He slumped down in his armchair, feeling it, maybe to make sure it was still his.
You don't know, he said to us. I know, but you don't. It goes away. You won't keep your baby fat, you little shit. You won't stay fun, Mary. It goes away. Get out. Out.
I only needed it once, really. I saw Mary briefly out of the corner of my eye, dumbfaced and blowing on a strand of hair. I heard Kerry puking in the bathroom.
Outside, my high went down as I stepped around fries. When I got back to my Aunt's, I found her watching television, still drinking champagne. She asked where I went. To Roseville, I said, to a fast food place.
She said she'd gone out to the restaurant. There a man had tried to be her suitor, she said. Mr. French sat sneering in the corner with a cigar, and she let this fat little man touch her cheek. Haggard and lumpy all over, she shuddered. She had left him chomping and winking when she rose to go freshen up. Then she had walked over to Mr. French's table, swiped his cigar from his mouth and dropped into his champagne glass. I still don't know why, she said absently. I still don't know why. I think I should leave tonight, I said. She smiled and nodded. Yes dear. You'll visit soon, won't you?
About the author:
Mike Young lives in Northern California, where, for a variety of distressing reasons, he does not own a sheepdog. His short fiction has appeared in Prose Ax and SmokeLong Quarterly. He actually hates fast food, but he enjoys promoting the free literary / political print journal that he co-edits: NOÖ Journal (www.noojournal.com).
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