Here’s a story I wrote in 2012. I’ve tried to get it published in half a dozen places and I’ve had some near hits, but nothing’s ever worked out. There’s something a little wrong with this story but I don’t want to change it; I like it the way it is. I’ve decided to publish it here today in honor of the Flint water crisis. I hope you enjoy my story. I think it’s a lot of “fun.”
It was March in Flint, Michigan and the city was plagued with record high temperatures for no reason anyone could think of. The dog licked Paul’s face and he woke up thinking about blood and mangled bones. He thought of everything that had gone wrong and all of the nothing he had to look forward to. In his dream there were miles of hot sand under his feet and happy cactuses. Awake in Flint, every part of his body hurt. He hadn’t had sex in three years. He was 32 years old.
Out in the living room, Paul’s roommates were watching commercials.
“Not even 9 am and it’s 72 degrees outside with a high of 86,” Tom said.
“They were saying earlier that marijuana cures AIDS,” Elijah added.
“If they’d just legalize it,” said Tom. “Think how much the government would make on the taxes.”
Paul looked out the front window at the apartment buildings across the street, then down at the wet, uncomfortable grass.
“What do you think, Paul?”
“The weather is all wrong,” he said.
“No,” Elijah said. “About weed curing AIDS.”
“Seems like there must be more to it than that,” Paul said. He pinned his Citgo nametag onto a Tool t-shirt. He was supposed to wear a collared shirt, but what did that matter?
Behind the counter, Paul scrolled through women’s profiles on OKCupid. He tried to find smart, heavy girls. He wished there were a way to filter for it. He thought about his eight-inch cock going to waste, longed for a box to check, a way to get the word out.
People stood in front of the register and said things: a deflated complaint about the price of gas. What beautiful weather we’re having. What’s Tool mean? You got those 5-hour Energies?
The 5-hour energies were right next to the register. He didn’t know how much more prominently he could place the 5-hour energies.
Around noon, a girl with a poorly rendered fortuneteller tattooed on her bicep complained that the coffee was cold, but it wasn’t. The fortuneteller peered into a crystal ball and had a black mole on her cheek.
“On the house,” Paul said. “I like your tattoo.”
“It was free.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Paul had meant to say, “Did your boyfriend give it to you?” but it came out wrong.
She scrunched up her nose and he watched her walk out of the store. He thought about grabbing between her legs, whispering something mean into her ear. “Go ahead,” he wished he had said. “Think you’re fucking special.”
“Who are you?” Professor Harris asked. “Who are you, really? Why are we here, and what is this life for?”
Paul and the rest of his 300-level philosophy class had recently moved into a smaller classroom with more windows, to let the light through, but then spring came earlier than expected and in this new room, the windows were painted shut. “You can’t win,” Someone had said.
A guy in the back row took his shirt off to reveal a torso covered in freckles. It got the ball rolling and pretty soon most everyone had his shirt off. Paul looked down at his shoes and thought hard about who he was, why he was here and what life might be for. He raised his hand.
“It’s so hot in here,” one of two girls in the class said. She pulled her tank top over her head and set it on the table.
“Can we go outside?”
“Yeah,” went a third student. “Can we have class outside on the quad?”
“Jesus Christ,” The professor said. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was old, black and tired. “What are you, fucking children?”
When Paul came home from school that night, he found a message waiting for him from a girl on OKCupid. Username: Moongazer611. Subject: Hey. The few times this happened in the past, it hadn’t amounted to anything, or it had and what it amounted to was bad. Once he agreed to meet a woman at Big Boy and she never showed. Another time he met a woman at Big Boy, and she showed up with a baby in her arms. She said the baby was his. “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” he’d insisted. “I know.” She clarified: “I meant from now on.”
When it came to internet dating, Paul saw himself in a casino, feeding a slot machine tokens. He’d been there an immeasurable amount of time. He never won and the lights and noise were crushing him, but he was bound to hit the money one of these days, wasn’t he?
The message from Moongazer611 said, “Nice weather we’re having, wouldn’t you say?”
It was difficult to argue with, but no. He wouldn’t have said that.
Her profile was mostly blank. Questions about job, religion and body type went unanswered. She liked hockey and dogs. Under diet she selected, “Strictly vegetarian.” She mentioned movies about romantic love and television shows with laugh tracks. Her display photo looked like it was taken at the mall in the nineties. In the other picture, she pointed a camera at the bathroom mirror and looked very serious doing it. She looked long. Not fat exactly, but over-sized. It was the same girl in both pictures but they spoke to each other not at all.
Paul looked into Moongazer611’s eyes and felt that familiar ache—anyone who’s lived enough to be profoundly disappointed has experienced it at least once—he knew; he just knew that he was going to meet this girl and that she was going to ruin his life.
It came to Paul as a basic, pedestrian question of free will versus determinism; he wondered what Professor Harris might say about it. It was determined that he would respond to Moongazer611, that she would seduce him, get pregnant, make him stay in Michigan forever and stifle his dreams of moving to Arizona. Knowing that, could he now choose differently? Suppose he didn’t respond to the query. Suppose he deleted his OKCupid account, picked up his computer and threw it in the flooded ditch behind the house. What if instead of responding to Moongazer611 he went out into the living room, knocked over the television set, picked up Tom and Elijah’s innocent blue heeler and snapped the thing’s neck? Where would he be tomorrow morning? He’d be sitting across the table from an incredulous man, a manila folder between them, just about to talk about what happened and why. Snap the dog’s neck, and everything is taken care of. Paul started to get up from his chair to go looking for the dog when MoonGazer611 came online and instant messaged him. She said: “Hi.”
She wanted to meet at the Big Boy in Grand Blanc. “No,” he tried to argue. “It’s haunted.” But he typed “Okay” instead.
It was March 23rd and 91 degrees in Michigan. “The air conditioner is filled with dust,” the Hostess said to Paul on the way to his booth, by way of explanation.
He’d been sitting alone, looking out the window at squirrels running up and down trees, when a towering woman sat down in the booth across from him, her shoulders hunched. She tucked a blond tendril behind her ear, apologetically.
“Paul?” she said. “I’m sorry I’m late.” The woman looked down at her tiny cleavage. She had long, thin arms and a wet face.
“Who are you?” Paul said.
“You’re not Paul? But you look just like the pictures…”
“I’m Paul,” he said. “Who the fuck are you?”
The girl’s bottom lip started trembling. It was a pink petal of a lip. Every inch of her looked laminated, really.
“I’m Misty. Why are you yelling at me?”
Two guys in dirty boots walked past their table just in time to notice the crying woman and the lumpy man with bad knees responsible.
“You’re not the girl from the pictures...” Paul said, but he’d already lost this fight; his words just swung through the air without landing.
“Is everything okay here?” The larger of the two men said. The other sat down at the booth behind them, took his hat off and put it on the table.
“We just met,” Misty sniffled.
The standing man cracked his knuckles.
“Lance,” the sitting man said. “You want coffee?”
There was a waitress involved now, and behind her, a mother with two small children trying to make their way through the aisle.
“I got upset,” Paul said. “She’s much prettier than her pictures. I thought she was playing a trick on me.” Paul thought back to the woman at home on his computer, then back at the girl sitting in front of him and invented a story that connected them. He could see it, a little. The skin was the same.
Lance pulled a bandana from his back pocket and wiped sweat off his brow with hands the size of trucks. “I can understand that,” he said.
“I feel insecure too, you know,” Misty said.
“Heck,” Lance said. “We all do.” He turned to the couple with eyes that reminded Paul of his dead father, and suddenly half the goddamn restaurant were in tears or on the brink.
“This is an unforgettable moment,” Lance said. “I’m going to rejoin my friend and let you two get to know each other.”
Paul looked at this sniffling unicorn in front of him. He watched her play with her hair using hands so awkward and fidgety they might as well have been hooves. “This pretty girl is scared of me,” Paul thought. He had all the power. “For once,” he thought. “It’s me instead of you.”
Outside, the sky was black and water hung in the air around them—not raining, and not about to rain but some made-up space in between. It was still so hot. It seemed that they were standing in a public shower together, outside with all their clothes on. It was erotic and uncomfortable.
His roommates were up watching Bones when the two of them came through the living room. The dog ran over and jumped up on Misty. Tom and Elijah said, “Blue!” as though it would make a difference, but Misty cooed like a mother and the dog sat down and looked up, wagging his tail. Tom and Elijah were shocked to see a beautiful woman in the house and showed it. Thunder and lightning crashed in front of the big bay window and all the lights went out.
“But…” Elijah said.
Tom patted his knee and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll download the episode tomorrow. Let’s go to bed.”
Paul lit his room with the two candles lifted from the dining room table. What’s the use of having homosexual roommates? The candles were pine scented and stale.
Misty sat on the edge of the bed. She pulled her long hair behind her and held it back in a ponytail. Paul didn’t know what to do. He sat down and rested his hand on her knee. It was a small, pitiful hand. For a second he imagined the man from the restaurant was in the room instead of him. He felt the girl buzz underneath his touch. With Lance’s hands, Paul reached under her skirt and touched between her legs. Misty squeaked and let her hair down. He thought of the girl with the fortuneteller tattoo. Professor Harris called out in a booming voice, “What are you, fucking children?” In Paul’s head, his bedroom was crowded with other people. Their shadows flickered against the wall. Misty grabbed his wrist and shoved his hand where it didn’t want to go. He jammed his finger, winced. She kissed him with a thin tongue. The kiss was bad, and then it got a little better, but mostly, their tongues were not a good match. They got undressed. Paul hated his body, but he remembered the size of his penis and felt happy for the chance to show it off. She put her hands around it, but it wasn’t behaving the way it should have. She held it for a long time and nothing happened. They rubbed against each other and panted. He heard Professor Harris mumbling something about agency. Lance was long gone. The girl with the Fortuneteller tattoo laughed at him.
“It’s okay,” Misty said.
“It’s usually much bigger,” Paul said. He wanted to catch the words and stuff them back inside of him, but it was too late.
Misty said, “I just want to hold you.”
She said something else, and at the same time, all the lights wooshed on, his computer sighed like an angel and the TV out in the living room screamed something about record high temperatures.
Paul looked at the stranger in his bedroom, saw that her eyes were frightened oceans. “Did you just say, ‘I love you?’”
“No,” she said. “God.”
“You did,” Paul said. Without really knowing why, he was angry. There were worse things than being loved by a beautiful woman, but he didn’t like things that made no sense, and nothing about this girl made any sense. Girls who look like Misty don’t live in Flint. They don’t sleep with men with busted up knees. Girls should look the same in all of their pictures. Girls should eat meat. “You said, ‘I love you.’ I heard you. Why would you say that?”
She got up and slid her top over her bare chest. She looked around the room, brushing her hair behind her tiny pink ears again and again. Still, she was so tall. Her limbs lifted up and down looking for her clothes as though pulled by strings. She went to the front door holding her bra and sandals in her hands. “I didn’t say that,” she said.
“I’ll drive you to your car,” Paul said, from the bed, in his boxer shorts.
She shook her head. “I followed you in my car. Don’t you remember?”
He didn’t remember, but he said, “Sure. Sure I remember. I’ll see you later?”
Professor Harris asked Paul to stay behind after he let the rest of the class out. It was the first week of April. People were getting nervous about the weather, but only a little. It was 95 degrees. There were rumors on evangelical radio stations that the sun had come unhinged and was moving closer to the earth, but science had other, better explanations. His roommates just watched game shows or network television in the evenings. Paul used to be really interested in the weather but lately he found he could barely get through the end of a news headline before his brain came unraveled. That’s what Professor Harris wanted to talk about. He wanted to know why Paul hadn’t turned in the proposal for his final paper. Paul opened his mouth to speak.
“Hell,” Professor Harris said. “Not that it matters. Why do you want a degree in philosophy anyway?”
Paul tried to remember. Something about wanting to wrap his head around things, to try and figure out why there was something instead of nothing? “I guess I don’t,” Paul said.
“It’s all falling apart,” Professor Harris said. “Of course, everybody’s been saying that forever.” He wiped his glasses clean with his tie.
Paul thought he looked like Danny Glover. A racist thought, probably, that a black man would look like any other black man.
“Still. It seems that if you’ve paid for the class you might as well finish it out. In case I’m wrong.”
Misty wanted to come over all of the time. She wanted him to bend down in positions his knees didn’t want to be in and kiss him and stay with him and stuff. They’d been on three dates since the first time, and always, his penis failed. Whenever she wasn’t around it behaved like a weapon. He masturbated constantly. When Misty wasn’t looking, Paul felt as though his hard ons could cut through cans, which would hurt a lot. It made him angry.
Misty brought him food that she called cake, but it was actually ground up nuts and carrots in a loaf that fell apart and crumbled when you tried to eat it. She had a handheld radio that she would hold up to his ear. He felt annoyed in particular by the New Radicals song “Don’t Give up.” They’d be driving and all of a sudden she’d pull the player out of her purse and hold the thing up to his head, cooing, “Here Paul. Listen. You love this song. Listen.” Inside her purse she kept a wet sponge. She patted his brow with it and hummed. That part was okay, but he wondered how the sponge didn’t ruin the radio.
Regular was four dollars a gallon, but the customers weren’t even cranky about it. They stopped mentioning the weather. They filled their cars up 10 or 20 dollars at a time, which meant he saw the same people over and over. He imagined the people were shuffled cards in his hands. That afternoon, he drew the girl with the fortuneteller on her bicep. She bought more oil, 10 dollars on number four and a bright blue drink in a dinosaur-shaped bottle.
“What are you, 12?” Paul said.
“Fuck you, Fella.” She smiled.
He asked for her phone number but forgot to ask her name. She wrote something on her receipt and he watched the back of her legs leaving the station. Sweat poured down the crease of her knee and her sandals flopped weirdly, because one of them was broken.
A man with a red face came in behind her and waddled up to the counter. He was carrying a sledgehammer. He bought a single pack of condoms and walked out the door without speaking.
Paul opened the receipt and looked at the number the girl had written down. He thought he’d text her something clever: “Watch out for the man with the sledgehammer,” but when he went to type her number into his phone, a digit was missing. “What a cunt,” he thought. He went outside and looked down the length of the street. He saw the man with the sledgehammer get smaller and smaller as he lumbered down the road. Paul squinted, turned his hand into a visor. His anger at the girl with the fortuneteller tattoo morphed into a piteous dread. He wished the number were complete so he could warn her about the man. He knew she’d driven off in her leaky Saturn by now, but Paul wanted to be a knight, and he imagined the man with the sledgehammer was gaining on her.
Misty wanted to go to the beach. “There’s a big beach near my mother’s house, on Pontiac Lake. Let’s go to the beach.”
“It’s April,” Paul tried to argue, although he didn’t know why he bothered. Paul lost every argument. All he wanted was a smart, heavy girl he could fuck, and instead he had this princess with a poison vagina. This was the new theory he was working on. Paul’s penis didn’t work because Misty’s vagina repelled it, like a magnet turned around the wrong way.
“No one will be there,” Misty said. “We can hop over the fence.”
It wasn’t exactly true that no one was there. A Mexican family had the same idea, but the beach was long and they kept to the other side. There was a man with a metal detector pacing back and forth along the water’s edge, and two more men throwing a football off in the distance.
They laid their towels out on the sand. It was gravelly and covered with slimy plants, blown in from the wind or something. It was only 80 degrees, but Misty assured Paul it would be hotter by noon. “They said it should get over 100 today,” she beamed. “The hottest day on record.”
Paul didn’t understand why people weren’t more concerned about the weather. A month ago, the lake was frozen solid so it was a little too cold for swimming. Paul’s arms and face were pink. He kept hidden under his shirt an impossibly white belly. Misty slinked out of her clothes to reveal a beige bikini clasped with oval pieces of wood; it was a suit from the seventies. Her body looked torn out of a magazine, and yet she slunk down into herself, embarrassed. Nothing Misty said or did made any sense. He felt the anger billow up inside of him from the start. He should have turned around and ran straight into the woods surrounding the lake then, instead of waiting until after it was too late to escape.
“So like, what are your dreams?” Misty said. “What are your passions?”
“What’s it to you?” Paul said.
Misty sat up and punched him playfully on the arm. He flinched. She started digging a hole in the dirt in front of her with a garden sized shovel, made of metal, not the plastic kind meant for kids on a beach. “Silly,” she said. “I want to know you.”
“I want to move to Arizona,” he said.
She smiled a little and dug the hole deeper. “Yeah? What’s in Arizona?”
He tried to remember what it was he’d left there. He remembered that it was flat. If you put your cheek down to the ground you could see the whole state laid out to infinity in front of you. It reminded him of the shelves in a refrigerator, but so hot. He’d wanted to go there for the heat, but now the heat was there on top of them, pressing down. There had to be another reason. What was the other reason?
“There are these boulders you can climb,” He started to say, but he thought about his knees, and knew that he couldn’t climb any boulders. The man with the metal detector walked by and started beeping. “But no. That’s not it,” Paul said.
“What is it, then?” Misty said.
Paul stared out at the sun, just hanging over the lake like a smug fuck, burning bright and unmoving.
“Try to remember,” Misty said.
“Do I have a dog?”
Misty made an ugh sound and threw the shovel in front of her, like a girl. The blade stuck in the sand as it landed. The shovel seemed larger than he remembered from a moment ago; it was weird.
One of the men out on the grass overthrew the football and the wind sent it rolling toward them. Misty stared out across the water. She brushed her wild blond hair away from her face and pursed her pink lips, trying to hold in her patience. She was so good to try to hold in her patience for such an impossible man, the action seemed to say. She was so kind and virtuous and patient.
Paul remembered Professor Harris mentioning that everyone had an equal ability to kill one another, which is why we had morals. That didn’t seem right at all. The man with the sledgehammer had the upper hand over the girl with the fortuneteller tattoo, for sure. Who would even argue that? And Paul could kill this waif in the swimsuit with his bare hands, because he was bigger than her and she was too polite to defend herself. He could have done it with his hands, but it was even faster with the shovel. All along, he’d been wrong about its size; it was a full-sized shovel that he brought down on Misty’s head, again and again. He didn’t even see her face before he started hitting her, it just happened. He felt the handle buzz in his hands when he made impact with her head. It sounded like someone pounding on a door wearing mittens. He thought of squashed grapefruit—in fact, he could almost smell it. She made a little squeak, but that was all. Her limbs were bent at odd angles and she’d landed with her head face down in the sand.
Paul would have stood there a lot longer, wondering why what just happened had happened, but the men throwing the football started walking in his direction. He noticed Lance’s hands first. The rest of him was dark from the sun, but the hands were white and large and swayed back and forth as he quickened his gait. The other one lagged behind slowly with his trademark disinterest. “Fancy meeting you two again,” Paul thought about saying, but instead he got up and ran toward the woods.
Not until he found himself trudging barefoot through thick, sticky brush did he notice the new strength in his legs. Making his way through these trees felt as easy as swimming. He thought he heard the men behind him, calling out, but it could have been birds or nothing. It was a long time before he got tired. The sun crept around the green and everything was wet; the ground seemed startled by the sudden thaw, spongier than it should have been and maybe even humiliated. He felt dirt on his face.
When it seemed as though hours had passed, the men weren’t any closer to finding him, and he hardly remembered what he was running from in the first place, Paul let himself sit down in a clearing at the foot of a tall tree. He thought about Arizona and the thing he was about to remember before Misty made him so mad and he beat her to death. Why had he ever gone to Arizona?
He’d met a girl on the internet. He flew to Arizona to be with her, because she was sort of pretty, because they both liked hockey, and it was okay, but he had regrets. He didn’t find out until it was too late to mention that she was a bad kisser. She got pregnant and he fell off some rocks, but look, he was better now. He just had the bum knees, and even those were feeling much better. Why again had he spent the last three years working at a Citgo in Michigan?
Paul was thirsty, that’s all. He’d get up and get out of these damn woods and go back to his wife in Arizona. He could quit the job at Citgo. He could mail Professor Harris his paper.
Paul looked down and saw a brown snake wrapping slowly around his bare leg. The snake had a diamond-shaped head and smart black eyes. Paul watched the head disappear under his shorts, and then he felt two fangs snap down on his flesh. It hurt! Paul sprang up from his spot and shook the thing away, and off it slithered under the brush, with purpose, like a contract killer on his way to collect.
On top of everything else, the sun beat down insufferably into the clearing on the brown grass. The scenes didn’t match. This kind of sun goes with green grass, but summer had come so early in Michigan. Nobody cared about the weather. Maybe nobody would care that he’d beaten his girlfriend to death with a shovel.
He could definitely hear shouting now, and men, stomping through the brush. He thought he felt a flashlight in his face, or else it was the interminable sun, split in two, floating just in front of his eyeballs. Either way, it was time to get out of the fucking woods. Maybe he could make it past Lance and the other guy in time to get to a phone. Maybe this wife in Arizona could wire him some money. Paul took two steps forward before the snake venom did him in and he fell down in the mud.
No. Okay. He was a little confused before but now he had it. Three years ago, he’d fallen off a boulder and hit his head, not his knees. Or maybe it was both his knees and his head, but it was the head wound that was most pressing. No, or rather, also, the sun had come undone and it made the magnets reverse. He had it: Not stuck in Michigan, but bed ridden in Phoenix.
People coming in and out of the linoleum tiled room, sticking thorns in his arms, slathering food on his face. Lance with a mop in his hands. Professor Harris in scrubs. The girl with the fortuneteller tattoo with her fingers snaked under his paper dress when her sister Misty wasn’t looking, and then the man with the metal detector walking by, or else. No. The persistent beeping of machines.
Overheard words spoken and scribbled against a clipboard: “Time to think about proceeding with the DNR paperwork” and “Some sort of contrived fever dream…”
It was too late. He was already married. He’d already fallen off the red rocks; it had been an error to pine for them. Nothing that happened in Michigan mattered—all those hours at Citgo unpaid, college, the shovel swinging madly through the air—and to think; outside, it was spring.
“He’s gone even deeper now,” a voice in a white coat said.
Paul thought, “No. It’s the opposite.” He wanted to get up and tell them. “I was a little confused before but now I’ve got it. I could try to be better this time.”
This world hated Paul. It never listened to him and it never let him do anything he wanted. The truth ran thick in his blood: not about to ruin his life, but waiting out a life already ruined. The heavy sun unhinged and coming straight for him.