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The Anonymous MAG
I don’t mow lawns, I don’t read to the elderly, I don’t walk people’s dogs. I don’t go fishing in the morning, I don’t ride my bike to the tracks to watch trains hurtle by. I don’t care about the rest. It is dusk, and I wait behind Bob’s Liquors for you, my hair in my eyes and my hands in my pockets. I try to look tough.
And there you are, as serenely rigid as a .22 pistol. I watch you approach through my eyelashes and your hands are white and beautiful. You hand me the Ziploc and I gruffly press some bills into your glowing palm. You don’t ask what I’m going to do with it and I assume that you don’t care, but I desperately want to tell you that I’m only the middleman. I’m not going to lose control like every other man you’ve known. I want to see that knowledge in your dark eyes. You glance at the shadows where my face should be for a quick moment, and I’m tempted to tear off my jacket and shirt and grab your hand and press it to my throbbing chest right there under the grungy neon sign shrieking Liquor! But you’ve already turned around and all I can see is the black silhouette of your boots hitting the asphalt in a rash of poise and dignity. I put the baggie into the deep recesses of my jacket and turn to walk in the opposite direction. The runny yellow of the streetlights washes over me and I am exposed. There is no one here to see me.
He has a real knack for finding people’s weaknesses, their insecurities. I spend half my time trying to block his subtle attacks and the other half trying to find his holes. “No, I know,” he says, his hands fiddling with the metal spring of a mousetrap. “I know that.” I watch him warily.
“Then why did you ask?” I demand angrily. I am sitting on the porch steps a couple of feet below him, and I see him glance at me quickly. Damn, I let him frustrate me again. I hate that he makes me seem like someone who gets riled up easily and for no reason at all.
The mousetrap snaps out of his hands and clatters down the steps. I reach down to pick it up but he is already bored with me. I can smell a faint whiff of men’s cologne under the layers of sawdust and sweat as he gets up. He works at his dad’s construction company during the day, doing mindless things like unloading lumber. He is clearly on his way into town. He lets himself out the iron gate with a grunt and a nod. He doesn’t ask me if I want to come.
I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to, though. I don’t want to be his wingman while he charms the high school girls at Holly’s Diner with soggy burgers and stale jokes. Every Friday night neither the girls nor the burgers nor the jokes change. I imagine the same girls sitting in the plastic booths 20 years from now, their hairstyles outdated and their skirts too short, but still giggling whenever Michael forces the younger boys to fetch him a soda or some fries.
But I wanted to be asked.
I sit on the porch for a while until the sun sets and I can see the pale flashes of fireflies followed by blank expanses of dark as they are snatched from thin air by bats. Catherine calls me for dinner but I stay outside a bit longer until I can’t see the outlines of the leaves on the oak trees anymore.
Dad bellows from upstairs, “Listen to your stepmother, young man, or you’ll be having no dinner at all!” The night air is burnt and there is no wind. I stand up. I can hear the muffled thumps of Louise and Brian stampeding down the stairs to the dining room. I go inside, leaving the mousetrap on the wooden banister.
I sit down at the dinner table as Catherine carries a pot of spaghetti from the kitchen, steam rising to the ceiling with nowhere else to go. Louise swings her feet in her chair because she can’t touch the floor yet, and Brian teases her because he can. Dad scolds them for horsing around at the table. He says a quick grace and Catherine serves us a pile of noodles and cooked broccoli. Dad glances at her affectionately as she ladles out his serving, and I have to look away.
“How was work today?” Dad asks when she sits. Catherine is the manager of a coffee shop and works ten hours a day to keep it running.
“Tiring,” she replies. “Bruce never comes in on time and I always end up picking up his loose ends. I’m sick of it.”
Dad pauses with a mouthful of spaghetti dangling on his fork. “You shouldn’t have to stand for that,” he says. “You work hard enough as it is.”
Dad has an overdeveloped sense of justice. He is a lawyer for a firm in Clarke County and takes his job very seriously. I push the bottoms of my broccoli to the side of my plate and watch Louise and Brian bicker over who has the least milk in their cups. They hate milk, but Catherine insists that it contains vital minerals for growing children. They pour it down the sink when she isn’t looking.
“So, how’s Michael? He doesn’t seem to come around much anymore,” Catherine says in an attempt to simultaneously include me and nose into my affairs.
“He’s fine,” I reply.
“What’s he doing this summer?”
“Working,” I say. “At his dad’s construction company.” She smiles, thinking I’ve opened up to her. I look at her blankly.
“You should find a job too,” Dad says. “We can’t have you hanging around here all summer.”
“What is there to do in this godforsaken town?” I ask irritably. “All the jobs are taken by people’s kids or Mexicans. I have nothing to do.”
Dad glares. “Don’t talk like that in front of your little brother and sister,” he reprimands, his eyes narrowing. “Find something to do. I refuse to let you stay home and play with your model airplanes all summer.” I haven’t played with model airplanes since seventh grade. I don’t bother to correct him. Catherine looks at her lap, and I hate her for not stepping in and for being here at all.
I am about to argue with Dad but decide against it when he raises his fork and Louise and Brian start paying attention. I ball up my napkin and throw it on my plate, then carry it to the kitchen, slamming the door behind me.
I hate the idea of stocking shelves at the only grocery store in town for weeks, but I know my belligerent comment only served to further Dad’s resolve that I get a job. I resent that he sees Michael as successful and responsible just because he has a job, even though it requires no skill. Michael sits in the woods with his dull friends most nights and drinks beers filched from the local liquor store. I stalk to my room and throw myself on the bed without turning on the light. A job – somewhere to go during the day. Some way to make money. I lie there thinking until it is pitch black and I am asleep.
It is a Friday night and the humid August air weighs on my chest and shoulders like Atlas’s burden. I tuck the thick plastic bag I just received into my jacket and pull my black hood over my eyes. You left not a minute ago and the stunning white of your hands is still resounding on my eyeballs in bright flashes of color like after I stare at the sun. You’ve never said a word to me in all the time we’ve met behind old buildings, so I am forced to imagine what your voice sounds like. I like to think that you sound worldly, cultured, refined, as if after collecting freezer bags in dark alleys, you change out of your black boots and into a pastel-colored dress and eat cucumber sandwiches and drink tea.
But I know that isn’t true, not just because the hard lines around your mouth tell me you would never wear a dress, but also because in this crumbling town no one does.
The headlights from the street recoil around the corners of the alley and disappear as I make my way into the open. I can hear girls’ voices and the deep laughter of the boys driving them around. I turn down the street and am about to walk away from town when I hear Michael’s sudden laugh. I turn into the shadows of Ed’s General Store and see him in the driver’s seat of his dad’s dark blue Cadillac, his two hoodlum friends and their girls in the back seat. His arm is around a blonde, and she is gazing at him as though he is about to give her everything she ever wanted. Michael doesn’t see me, but his thick friends do.
“Hey, jerk! Yeah, you. C’mere!” The larger one is coming toward me and before I can see his face, I can almost see who he will be in 15 years – big, fat, drunk, and still here in this forgotten town in Texas. I step out of the shadows to meet him, and his face is ugly and hostile in the streetlights.
“What you doin’ creeping around like some kind of freak? You tryin’ to mess with us?”
I don’t say anything. “Answer me!” He reaches to grab me but I sidestep him. Michael gets out of the car and his other friend steps closer.
“Just get out of my way,” I say. My hood is still obscuring my face, and I’m sure that none of them know who I am. I reach into my jacket and wrap my fingers around my pocketknife but don’t pull it out. Michael and his friend are coming closer.
“Look, you don’t want to mess with me,” I say and tighten my grip on the knife. “I’m not like the rest of the kids you beat up. I’m not going to just stand here. I’ll fight back.” They stop a few yards away.
“Oh yeah? Well, it’s three against one, buddy,” threatens the shorter one, his hands balling into fists. I raise my head so my hood slips a little and the lights from Holly’s Diner illuminate my features. I hear Michael’s intake of breath. The other guys still don’t know who I am.
“Just don’t mess with me,” I say. “Just turn around and go back to playing with your girlfriends and I’ll walk away.” Michael doesn’t say anything, but when I look at him, I see a slight stain of fear and know he won’t fight me. But he also won’t step in to save me if his friends decide to.
I don’t give them the chance to start anything and turn my back to walk away. “Yeah, that’s right. You walk away from us!” the larger one shouts. I keep walking. After a minute they go back to Michael’s car and get in, the girls praising them in low voices for their courage. I release my grip on the pocketknife and instead feel for the plastic baggie in my jacket. And I relax. The watery moonlight gets brighter the farther I walk from the bright lights of the diner.
I’m sure that Michael won’t be coming over to my house anymore. I’m not upset – in fact, I’m almost relieved. He knows what I’ve become. Maybe he’s good with inheriting his dad’s construction company and marrying that blond girl, but he knows that I’m not. I’m going to do anything to get out of this place, and I already have been.
I can feel the grooves in the dirt road from years of tractors and Jeeps and bikes. The trees are dark shapes but the wind seems to pull at me, back toward the smutty music and the dead-end cravings of town. I stop at the gate and see the flashes of color on the wall; Catherine and Dad are watching TV. Louise and Brian’s room is dark; they are already asleep.
It is quiet and I am wedged in the middle. I want you to see me here, with one hand on the iron gate of civilization and one on the plastic bag in my jacket. I want to tear you away from the vicious neon cycle that I have only scratched the surface of. But if you won’t, I will do it alone. I can’t move – yet – but I know where I’m going.