Three Stories

Three Stories

Two Step

I watch you dance with Shane in the big rodeo corral of Bar 918. It’s oppressively country even for Oklahoma. Shane’s six-foot-two, all Levi’s and self-deprecation. You’re something else. The lights alternate bar mitzvah orange and blue. You’re two-stepping. We have plans to bird watch in our old age, mine sooner than yours.

You taught me two-step. Though there are only three steps, I constantly need relearning. You laugh whenever I dance. This pattern—forget, teach again—is a homey point of contention, like our couch. Of course you’re right: my dancing is a disaster.

Before, I asked Timmy Tiger where you and Little Ralphie went and he said, “ We don’t all keep track of each other.” He said he meant Cherokees, like you, and I thought he meant gay guys, like Ralphie. Either way, he was laughing and I felt like an ass. Timmy said two-stepping was the official dance of white people. I circled my face, gave him the ‘not all white people’ and he said I was the other kind, Sweater White. I rhymed yachts with square knots.

Earlier still, at a gluten-free brewery ringed by your art, you bragged on me karaoking Ludacris’ verse from “Gossip Folks” by memory. There was a whole tangent on snagging, hooking up at powwows and such. The jokes were mild and strange. I come from a long line of “it’s not offensive if it’s funny,” a long heritage of not-funny people. I watched out for jokes I didn’t belong in. I’m still learning to pivot.

I say you have a voice like a Disney princess and you say, “I can’t sing.” It’s like when I compliment your butt and you say, “I don’t have a butt.” Or like when I call you brilliant and you say, “I don’t see why.” It’s the easiest thing in the world, telling you true things you refuse to believe. All night you’re unimpressed, moving forward.

Your bangs are kinetic. You say “I love it!” when you love Alice’s shawl, Timmy’s tiny wine pouch. Your back is an agony of nerves tucked against your spine from preparing for your show, but you animate the table. You talk about race cars and setting picks in basketball and spook trails. It’s all become a language I’ve learned. You smile with your chin thrust out.

We held hands walking down the street headed to a unicorn bar, the saddest place in Tulsa. I watched dudes malingering around the dance floor like carnies. The sight made my scalp itch to back when I was unsteady with hygiene, unsure of what to do with my mouth, leering at every wrong time, careless with what was given to me. At times I doubt what’s left of my talent for reinvention.

Shane can two-step like he got it in church when he was eight. Shane I don’t mind, though you look good together. I might be making a mistake, but at some point you have to be ready to look foolish. I watch you step on beat, watch Shane spin you and smile. You grapevine, another move I can’t master. I still think that I could learn. You quote Beauty and the Beast in Shane’s handsome little ear, your black braid whipping, thick as the rope you’d throw a drowning dog.

Two Glasses

Dr. Engle said I could take anything from the garage pile. It felt like another test, so I chose the huge gilt mirror and four crystal port glasses. Engle had advised my thesis, “Foucault in Azkaban: Punishment, Authority, and Redemption in YA.” He brewed and smithed, had four sons under ten, moved a heavy dresser solo in sandals, sported a Gondor beard, couldn’t help with a job. “The thing about the mirror,” he said. “It’s a little cursed.”

“Like, magically?” Maggie said the light in the bathroom mirror made her haggard. She’d said it more than once.

“Perhaps. It occasionally shows a reflection of the future. We think it might also show one’s fears. Lily once saw herself choking out Little Seamus and that hasn’t happened yet. As curses go, it seems fairly mild. Now these,” he picked up a glass. “We didn’t use often. Who drinks port? But they’re enchanted.”

“Enchanted how?”

“Whatever you’re drinking tastes like itself, only more so. I drank a whole bottle of Oban with these. Massive peat, tedious refilling.”

I lugged the mirror up the stairs to our apartment. Maggie was on the couch in footie pajamas, resplendent as a lioness.

“Look what I got!” I hoped to win her over before dropping the curse.

Maggie stared into it. “God, I look haggard.”

Then I showed her the port glasses wrapped in sheets of the Tahlequah Daily Press and used student blue books. “Ooh,” she said. “Those are pretty.”

Maggie got home from A2B, another six hours of constant abuse from people panicking roadside by their Hertzes. Her job had no benefits, office bedbugs, a guy who displayed classic shooter tendencies. I’d called in to work because I couldn’t stand one more minute under fluorescents with Mariah Carey yodeling at me, so I was already drunk.

Maggie called me Judas, her longest mistake, then declared her intention to also get wasted. That night we split a Four Loko I’d kept since senior year and, like everything about college, was fading and sour. I threw up in the sink while she cried on the floor, asking if this was it. The port glasses were a poor choice. She cursed violently from the hallway where we kept the mirror, because it sometimes showed things you didn’t need to see while you were in bed and the hands started to wandering.

In the reflection was her image mixed with her mother’s. I didn’t show up, probably a blessing. “There are worse futures,” I said.

“Name one.”

That January it snowed in a way we hadn’t seen in years. We couldn’t afford to lose the work, but work decided for us. Maggie lay on the floor, looked at her phone and grew despondent. One of her sorority sisters had moved to France. “Please,” she said. “I know its ridiculous, but please take me somewhere soon. Muskogee, I don’t care.”

I had her get her scarf and boots on. Maggie’s thick black hair spilled out from under her hat and around her gray eyes. I tucked the bottom of her scarf into her jacket and pocketed a flask full of Rumple Minze. Like German nobility, we struck out and like Dickensian orphans we arrived at the grocery store. We got Swiss Miss with marshmallows, two steaks, frozen crinkle cut fries, and a box of toaster strudel.

Bellies glowing, feet thawed, Maggie’s face rosy as a young Mrs. Claus, we made the cocoa and drank from the port glasses. It was every post-sledding kitchen warmth. It was recess’ end before winter break when Mrs. Galloway made it for the whole class. It was Maggie’s grandmother and quilts from the back of the closet. It was red-fingered Finals Week snowball fights. The port glasses held two marshmallows. Each a balloon of hope.

Maggie saw herself wearing a call center headset, me potbellied and pajamaed in the background. She saw herself waking up and waking up and waking up. I tried to check my hair as the mirror showed it receding. It showed us together. It showed us alone. It showed us with other people, people we knew, which led to phone checking and other paranoias. We couldn’t tell what was future and what was the other person’s fear. So many of them showed me fatter. So many showed Maggie the same. I couldn’t get rid of it. It had been a gift. “Why can’t it show us something better?” She asked, staring at my stomach.

“I don’t think it works that way.”

She took this as a comment on us. First she started ducking her head in the hallway. Then she took to sitting on the far end of the couch wrapped tightly in her P.S. I Love You blanket. She’d come home from work, see me on the floor with a book, and shudder in a way that meant she’d seen this before.

I poured her filtered water in the port glasses, the taste like a cell regenerating. I kept refilling and refilling, standing her in front of the mirror.

“Look,” I said.

She couldn’t bear the sight. I kept looking for the both of us.

A Breach of Club Rules

Rounding the top of hole 2, a group jumps in front of Alex and Dave, a breach of club rules. Dave says, “They can’t do that,” then yells, “Hey! Assholes! You can’t do that!”

Dave has survived cancer. He marvels at the rolling beauty of fall, gives frail hugs, always asks after Alex’s family in a way that’s lonely and touching. Cancer also put blades in Dave’s heart. Whether from the chemo or the proximity of death, Dave’s fury, his spite erupts and lingers. Immigrant kids are parasites. Muslims a plague. Women are bitches, his ex most of all though he’d still take a turn.

In the past six months, Dave had been hit by a car, broken with pain pills, fired three shots through his backdoor at home-invading teens. Facts are unreliable. He’d been life-flighted after getting hit by the car, which was actually a truck. The kids had helped him move in. He hadn’t shot any of them. There isn’t much debating the pills. Dave’s hands are origami talons.

So when Dave launches a new volley of “Get off the goddamn hole!”, Alex is prepared to write it off. Just like he writes off Dave’s bottomless litany of jokes, punchlines about reluctant women giving blowjobs, brutal parodies of black men after missed putts. Alex lets it all slide because Alex is a coward who values a quiet day of golf above decency.

Alex tees off while the group, six deep, definitely a breach of club rules, mills around the green. From the top of 2, the pastoral spread of Cherokee Trails undulates in variegated browns and bare trees. To the left, the bell at Sequoyah High boops. Far to the right, errant pops come from the firing range. Alex hits a long arcing drive, and the confluence of his body, club and ball makes him a brief conduit for harmony.

On the walk down to their balls, Dave veers onto hole 3, where the six gather at the tee box. “Hey, you dickheads. You can’t skip around like fucking assholes.” They scamble, deploy. A Sooner red cart buggies up the hill. Alex sighs. He is decades younger than Dave and not crippled by chemo and pill addiction and teens and trucks. On this day, as every day, he is not prepared to throw down over a breach of club rules.

The driver of the Sooner cart reveals himself as the worst sort of chapped ass. He looks like a Rick. He is squat, burly, purple-faced and bellowing with a crimson windbreaker, both windbreaker and cart accessorizing each other in a way that dampens the effect of the man’s fury. The other carts establish a front as the Rick launches upright, grabs Dave’s lapels and drives him stumbling backwards on his cancer-depleted legs. Dave keeps up the chatter.

Alex experiences a delicious sequential slowing of thought: 1.) Look at this paragon of every surly, pig-eyed, red ass, troglodyte motherfucker of my past five years; 2.) Dave, stop talking; 3.) A fistfight. Over golf; 4.) That gorgeous breeze; 5.) Someone’s getting sued.

The Rick puts his hands down and bumps Dave gorilla-style. They bark and bark at each other, but Dave’s barking erodes to yapping as he’s driven backwards. When Dave hits the ground, the Rick sprawls, hands out, barking spit down at Dave’s face. The other five guys stand in an uncertain ring.

Alex says, “Alright, man, enough.”

The five guys make similar noises, though a few mention Dave’s fucking assholes and how it wasn’t right, how they’d got cut in front of too. The Rick is up on his hind legs in a rage of Coors breath, explaining to Alex’s face what Alex just watched as if Alex hadn’t been there. How Dave started it. How the Rick didn’t touch him. How Dave shouldn’t talk shit if he didn’t want his ass beat. Alex, terrified and bored, nods and says, “OK. OK.” Rick asks Alex does he want to go too? Dave whimpers on the ground in the fetal position about his back, his back. Because Alex is a coward, though in this instance a better sort of coward than letting racism and sexism slide, he says, “No, I do not.”

A few of the men stay behind and apologize. Both sides are to blame. It’s stupid. They’re out here to play golf. Alex agrees. At his feet, Dave stays in the fetal position with one hand covering his spine and the other his face. Later, Dave sues. The cancer comes back.


About the Author

Christopher Murphy received his MFA from The University of Arkansas and teaches creative writing at Northeastern State University. He reads for Nimrod International Journal. His work has been published at Gulf Coast (online), This Land, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, and decomP among others. He has a collection of flash fiction, Burning All the Time, coming soon from Mongrel Empire Press.

Photo, "hot chocolate," by Andy / Andrew Fogg on Flickr. No changes made to photo.