The Prodigal Son

The old prodigal son story comes to mind as you drive back to your hometown, the buildings of your old complex rising up from the ground like stubborn weeds. You respect Jesus’ storytelling skills, but will have to rewrite a couple plot points for your story. Exchange the extravagant son for the one barely scraping by. The forgiving father for the estranged mother. The hypochondriac mother who finally got the terminal cancer she always wanted.

You’ll visit your old bully, the girl who got away, your mother. The trifecta of terrible. The bully shipped off to military school after his crew disbanded on drug charges, taking away your only shot at revenge. You find him on Facebook, American flag as profile picture, ask for a time and place. He replies within the hour: noon tomorrow, at his house. You clench your fist as you ring the doorbell. Tense up. The door opens and catches on his front wheel. You’re supposed to believe that this is the same person. His left leg ends at his shin. His left hand’s missing both ring finger and pinky, perpetually giving a peace sign. The place where his left ear once was is a whirl of scarred flesh. His nose is MIA, lips grafted from what you guess must be ass flesh. Gifts from Afghanistan. He looks up at you, expressionless, and it’s only when he passes his eyes over you that you realize his left eye doesn’t move. Will you have a beer? No you won’t. And he’s grabbing two, you’re about to protest, but then he guzzles them both, one after the other. And could you come in the kitchen? There’s a door that leads into the basement. He opens it. It could be an accident, he tells you. He looks you in the eye. Your knuckles whiten on the wheelchair’s handles. You exhale. You let go. Finish the rest of the six pack. Tell him it was nice to catch up. Leave.

Her door opens. No one’s there. You look down. The kid eyes you suspiciously, hides his trading card behind his back. You guess Pokémon. You tell him he doesn’t have to worry, that you’re not here to steal his card. Who are you? That’s a good question, but you don’t say that. You say nothing. And you look sad and happy and weird and how does he know you’re not a weirdo? And you are a weirdo, he’s correct, but so is his mom. That’s why you were friends. You’re a good weirdo. And when she comes to the door the kid says he doesn’t know who you are, but you’re an old friend. A good weirdo. He can go inside now, sweetie. The kid’s dad is at work, right? There won’t be any problems? The kid’s dad is out of the picture. Was out of the picture. For how long? Until now. You remember to breathe. From inside the house you hear the show’s theme song’s singer. He wants to be the very best, like no one ever was. And you didn’t think she’d keep it. Him. And why wouldn’t she? She’s been doing fine raising him on her own these past seven years. And that’s not what you meant. You would’ve stayed if you knew. And bullshit, you took your first chance and ran away. She didn’t get to run away. But you were accepted into your top pick. That’s not fair. You leaving wasn’t fair either. The wind blows. Fall leaves drop to the ground. Well, you might as well come in since you’re here. She’s making grilled cheese. When it’s done you tell her what you’ve done so far, what you still need to do. That you’ll come back, if that’s okay. And sure, that’s fine. See you later. Goodbye.

They keep little animal print paper cups next to the water cooler that only really shoots out half-melted ice chips. You fill two cups. Breathe like you’ve emerged from a great depth. Knock on her door, but she refuses to answer. You come in. She says she’s surprised you came, thought you’d just run away again. That you’ve gotten fat, even though you’ve lost weight. You hand her her ice chips, but she can’t lift her arm to feed herself. You shuffle some chips into her dry mouth, wait till she’s ready for more. You pass the time watching daytime TV, both of you silent, audible sighs answered by indifference. You tell her you naively thought it’d be different, that you’d both put aside your differences and reconcile in the end. She throws a phone at your head. She’s obstinate for as long as she can be, till she can tell she’s going away. She asks for ice chips. You give them to her. She tells you she… That she… She tolerates you. And you tolerate her too, Mom. You tolerate her too.

You make your way down to the water, you three, take off your shoes, dip your toes in. The water is cool and still. You take out the jar you brought with you. Open it and poke air holes in the lid. You hand it to your son, tell him to catch every lightning bug he can find. Both of you watch the way your son runs off, into the night, and you know that all of it, everything, is going to be all right.

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The Places You’ve Never Been

The last thing you do is pull your savings out of the ATM and hide the cash in a compartment behind the back seat. You flip through the radio, settle on Chvrches. When you first heard this song you were still with him, riding through the twilight of your town, you singing lead and him backup. You turn the radio off, try to plan your next move. Your dog is in the back, tail as metronome, panting then whining, panting then whining.

You tell yourself our ancient ancestors went days without food sometimes. You don’t use this justification for your dog. You learn not to park at Walmarts, where cops like to patrol at night. You find rest stops, forest preserves, residential streets with no traffic. Once a month you drop thirty bucks on a night in a hostel, the stiff bunk feeling to you like a king size bed, showering two, three times that night. You splurge on dog treats after these hostel nights, come back to your dog in the car, all the windows cracked, and spoil him.

You draft stories in your notebook, use your pens till you have to lick the nibs to get them to work, write by the light of streetlamps when your dog’s asleep and the wind coming through the window sounds like a giant going ooh. When the stories are done you head to the library, wash up in the bathroom, type them up, revise. You look at your author bio, your accolades, the picture you took before all of this happened. You try not to cry. You submit.

For physical contest submissions you fill out your SASE with an address near where you usually park, nobody ever home when the mail comes but staking this place out every day anyway just in case, waiting till the mailman leaves to take what’s yours.

It gets so you can only afford one donut every other day, ripping off a piece for your dog. You can handle this until his whimpers keep you up at night. You are able to convince yourself you’re a freegan, that you’re okay with raiding supermarket dumpsters. The fruits and veggies you devour immediately. The meat you check for green spots, excise the pieces, eat. You start fires with a cigarette lighter, discarded packaging. You hold the meat up to the fire with a plastic fork, hope it doesn’t melt. Your dog licks your hand when he’s done, nuzzles you till you must pet him.

You collect quarters from underneath vending machines, sneak into movie theaters and check for valuables under seats. One day you just do it. You pull a fast food cup from under the passenger seat. You collect change, not able to make eye contact, hating yourself because you actually have a “home.” You tell yourself when you get out of this you’ll give ten bucks to every homeless person you see. When you can’t or won’t dive anymore, you go to the shelter, pocket bread and grayish hunks of meat for your dog, ignore the stares. You tell yourself homelessness exists on a continuum.

You crush pop cans, stack them, put them in a basket you scavenged. It gets so the guy at the recycling center knows you by name. You get better at it day by day, till you need two baskets, then a garbage bag, then two. You buy your dog treats and bones and squeaky toys. You write until you slump in your seat, exhausted, waking to your dog biting at the wire binding of your notebook, bending it out of shape, sitting up and wagging his tail when he knows he’s been caught. You go to the library and transcribe two stories, one after the other. You check out every book that was ever written ever.

You bring your latest haul to the recycling guy, wait as he stares at you. He asks if you need a job and you say yes before he can tell you what it is. After you’re hired, he hands you all the paperwork instead of mailing it. Neither of you say anything. Your first Saturday off after landing the job you stake out your “mailbox,” rush over after the mailman leaves. You see an envelope from one of the contests you entered. The biggest one. You skim the letter for “unfortunately.” You don’t find it. You cry when you see how much it is, walk back to your car holding the letter like it’s the Ark of the Covenant. You let your dog out of the car and run, with him, around the block and out past the neighborhood, where even the cars don’t go, to the places you’ve never been.

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Just Be a Person

Just pick yourself up out of the snow, plowed into a heap, next to the fallen nest in the street, waiting to get erased by a tire. Just wipe the frozen vomit from your shirt, coat halfway off, one shoe gone so when you walk you’ve become a Frankenstein. Just shield your eyes from the haze of the streetlamps, becoming two in your eyes, the sky a pepto pink behind it, buildings as knives to cut it open. Just end up at the back door of the halfway house by some cosmic luck, knocking loud enough so the cool guard can hear but not loud enough for the director to. Just end up with the one showerhead that halfway works, stepping in and out of the icy water till you can’t feel anything. Just tap a handful of sleeping pills into your mouth, the ones you snuck in, body still frozen, and try to figure if the whiskey will interfere. Just go to sleep anyway. Just wake in the morning, amazed, and shake Larry in the next bunk over till he wakes up, tell him it’s visiting hour even though it isn’t cause that’s the only way he’ll get out of bed. Just walk straight into the dining hall and don’t stumble, especially not in front of the director. Just fill out a crossword while your skull pulses into a thousand pieces, your head filled with against the odds stories of your sobriety, finished manuscript, Pulitzer in hand. Just go back to your room and do a hundred pushups, pray to god in the sunlight, dump the sleeping pills down the toilet. Just scream into your pillow, stab it with the blade you snuck in, hide the feathers on Larry’s bed. Just send her texts in between groups, insisting you’re clean, haven’t touched a drop since you got here a month ago, that you’ve got a stack of pages written, that you’ll see her in no time. Just swish mouthwash to get rid of the whiskeystink. Just down the mouthwash and wait for it to burn in your belly, to swim in your head. Just stuff paper towel down your throat, one after the other, till you can’t breathe, and try to hold it there, sliding down the wall, now lying on the floor, eyes on the bathroom’s flickering bulb, listening to yourself choke but it sounding like it’s coming from someone else. Just cough it all up and see spots in your eyes till you get up and clean yourself off. Just dream in scenes of a life you’ve never had, the one you’ve written about, keeping yourself from the edge of the bridge you’ve been eyeing since before you got in this place. Just realize that the only reason you haven’t finished writing is cause you can’t see your life past the story, a big black nothing after THE END. Just tell the director what he wants to hear in groups, bum cigs off Larry, convince the cool guard to hold the door for you while you “go for a walk,” stopping at the liquor store. Just pocket a couple plastic bottles, pants bulging, and head for the door like you’re on a lazy stroll. Just run when the alarm goes off. Just get stopped at the door by the cool guard, one of the bottles falling out, him asking you what in the fuck you think you’re doing. Just tell him you’re joking, only kidding, and throw a bottle in the snow, another against a tree, the rest into the street, bouncing off parked cars, bottlecaps cracking, splattering alcohol. Just walk past him as he shakes his head. Just delete the dealer’s number from your phone, then search all your texts, your call history to find it again. Just give up. Just wake in the night, shivering even though it’s warm in your room, sweating through your sheets, Larry snoring in his bed and a sickle moon letting light in. Just consider holding a pillow over Larry’s face but search through his dresser instead. Just find his mouthwash. Just pop off the cap. Just walk to the bathroom and look in the mirror. Just pour it all down the drain and apologize to Larry while he sleeps. Just pull out your notebook and open it, pages untouched. Just start writing, filling up pages, flipping, not stopping, not letting up. Just let Larry sleep in. Just take a cold shower. Just eat breakfast. Just watch the way the sun fills up the room. Just cry in the bathroom when you have to. Just be a person.

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