Notes on Fiction: Arrival Stories

Posted by Michael Borshuk On 12:52 PM
[Note: Two mostly unedited sketches here, that don't seem to fit into any other fiction I have on the go at present.]

1.

A rainy day in Windsor, in the car. My father and I are out for the afternoon, running errands. I am maybe four, or five, and sitting in the back seat, though I can’t recall why. I was beyond the age of car-seats at that point. The rainwater is relentless, a constant rattle against the windows and I can recall no visual details, no features limned, outside the windshield. Instead, I see a wash: the blur of the wipers, a field of grey.

At some point in the afternoon my father bought me a Coke. This I remember. The empty can between my legs. The congealed syrup of the soda in droplets on the silvery top of the can. The straw that protrudes.

There is smoke in the car too. The familiar smell of tobacco. And the radio plays, but the music I can’t remember.

“This is a whopper,” my father says, reassuringly.

A Whopper is a hamburger at Burger King. It’s too big for me to order, says Mom. But Dad, I realize after thinking about it, means the storm.

“Will we make it home?” I ask.

“You bet, Baba-Looey,” he says in one of his cartoon voices. I don’t know the character but he’s told me who he’s imitating: Quick Draw McGraw, a cowboy character. Baba-Looey is his sidekick.

“Are you going the right way, Dad?”

He comes back with one of Quick Draw’s catch-phrases, one I’ve heard a lot: “Hey. I’ll do the thinking around here, Baba-Looey.”

I look at the Coke. Out of boredom, I pick it up and try the straw. The slurp echoes loudly against the tinny emptiness of the can. Nothing there.

The rain continues to beat against the car.

“Ah no,” my dad says suddenly, with an urgency that alarms me.

“Dad?”

He begins to pull the car over.

“Are you going the right way?”

He doesn’t respond playfully, in the cartoon voice. He doesn’t respond at all this time.

Suddenly, the passenger door is opening, from the outside, and someone is getting into the car. It’s an old man. Old like my grandfathers. His clothing is soaked. His thinning grey hair is pressed tight with wetness to his head. The man coughs as he wrestles himself down into the passenger seat of our little car.

“You’re going to get sick standing out there,” my father says to the man.

The man coughs again, forcefully. “I didn’t think anybody would stop. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes I was out there and not a goddamn car to stop.”

The man’s profanity startles me. My mother would punish me if I used the word.

“Well, Al,” I stopped, my father says. “Where we headed?”

The man is looking at my father intently. I see his eyes staring, wide, in profile. He seems just as surprised as I am that my father knows his name.

“There are smokes there if you want one,” my father says to the man. “But we gotta get moving. Where you off to, Al?”

The man, Al, takes one of my father’s cigarettes and lights up with my father’s matches, as Dad pulls the car away from the curb.

Exhaling, the man says. “You know me, son?”

The rain has picked up. My father concentrates harder in keeping the car on course. There’s a long pause before he answers.

“Everybody knows you, Al. The champ.”

Al nods. “Yes, I was the champ.”

“You don’t know me, though, Al?” Dad says. He looks disappointed.

Al smokes his cigarette thoughtfully. He surveys my father for some time. “Did we drink together some night, son?”

My father shakes his head. “We never have. No.”

Al looks confused.

“Where are we going, Al?” Dad says. “Tell me where to take you.”

Al thinks. “A motel. I’m at a motel out by the highway.”

“I can do that,” Dad says.

“You’re a young man, son. I don’t know a lot of young men unless I drank with them.”

“How’s your family then?” Dad asks.

“My wife?”

“Your brother. How’s your brother. How’s he doing?”

Al waits a long time to answer. Then he smiles. He laughs. He laughs so hard he coughs. After he’s cleared the phlegm from his throat he laughs again.

“Alan,” Al says. “Little Alan. How’s your dad? How’s Bill?”

“Which motel?” Dad replies. “There’s a bunch.”

2.

A sleepover with Zizi, my grandfather, when I’m seven years old. I’ve stayed before at this place, his new apartment, an underfurnished one-bedroom in an old walk-up by the university. This is a new arrangement; he’s recently separated from my grandmother. My parents keep offering me as a consolation prize between the two of them, available for overnight visits, a grandchild to assuage the loneliness of their middle-aged estrangement. I am packed off with a tootbrush, a shopping bag of toys, a book. Zizi promises pizza and Jiffy Pop popcorn and probably more television than I’m usually allowed.

His apartment has one chair in the bedroom and a couch in the living room. We sit together on the couch. We watch an old TV. Normally this arrangement would be enough to satisfy me, a Friday night well-spent. But Zizi is unsettling at times. He is strong, and gruff, and sometimes unaware of my needs.

He jogs every day. Once he took me for a run with him and made him leg it out the full three miles. My legs ached for days.

He’s a health nut and takes vitamins. Once he gave me a big glossy red multivitamin and insisted I take it with my breakfast. I put it in my mouth, expecting the hard red shell to dissolve sweetly—a candy coating—but was disappointed by the bitter taste I discovered. When he turned around I put it in my pocket. Who knows what happened to it from then on?

He is clearly not a man used to dealing with young children.

When he makes the Jiffy Pop (shaking the pop corn over the open flame of the gas stove impatiently), he leaves me in charge for a moment so he can go answer the ringing phone. I can barely reach the handle of the popcorn pan; when the corn starts popping within the foil, explosion after small explosion of kernel flowering, I feel like I’ll lose control. The blue flame of the gas burner is at my eye-level and I’m mesmerized by its threatening hue as the popcorn tray slides percussively, like a manic tambourine, in my grip. As the force of the popcorn threatens to overtake me, Zizi returns.

“How’s it going?” he says.

I don’t answer, concentrating instead on the task I’ve been assigned.
“You’ve got to keep it right on the flame, or else they won’t all pop.”
With his usual grizzly bear impertinence—does he realize how big he is?—he forces me aside and takes control of the pan himself.

Later, eating popcorn that he’s covered in seasoning salt, we sit together on the couch in the living room. Zizi makes conversation.

“Do you have lots of friends at school?”

I am shoveling popcorn into my mouth, two small fists at a time. I swallow and reply. “I have at least three.”

“Kid like you should have more. You’re very likeable.”

“I have three I met just at school. Some are friends from the street.”

“Do they go to your school?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Then they’re school friends, too.”

“If you say so,” I reply.

“Are any of them girls?”

I eat more popcorn and look away.

Zizi, uncharacteristically, leaves the matter alone.

“You like Wonder Woman?” he asks, after some time. “The show?”

I nod, risking embarrassment. He may lay into me for liking a woman superhero.

Instead, he smiles. “Me too.”

Then, out of nowhere, he says, “You like to talk on the phone? You can call one of your friends, if you want.”

“That’s OK.”

But he doesn’t let it rest. “You should talk on the phone. It’s good to be social.” I scrounge through the bottom of the popcorn bowl, picking out half-popped kernels.

Abruptly, he rises and disappears into the kitchen. I hear a drawer opening. He comes back briskly with the phone book in hand.

“Who are you going to call?” he says, brandishing the book in a way that seems menacing.

I say the first name that comes to mind. “Chris.”

“Who’s Chris?”

“He’s new at school.”

(And in fact, Chris is so new that I’ve talked to him only once. He’s a grade above. We we’re lined up at the school door, waiting to go inside at the morning bell. I was wearing running shoes my mother bought for me and he spoke. “Those aren’t Adidas, you know,” he said. I looked at my shoes. He spoke again. “Those are supposed to look like Adidas, but they’re fake. Those are cheaper, I bet.” I nodded. He said, “My name’s Chris. I saw you in my neighborhood. Do you live on Tournier?” I nodded. “Baby Street here,” Chris said. “We moved in with my Uncle Joe Marentette.” The bell rang and we went in.)

“So what’s his last name?”

“Marentette,” I say. “Maybe. He lives with his uncle.”

Zizi, determined, goal in place, begins leafing through the phone book. “OK,” he says. “What street is he on?”

“Baby.”

“Huh?”

“Baby.”

“B. A. B. Y.?”

“Yes, Baby.”

Zizi shakes his head. “It’s prounounced Babby.” (He rhymes the word with “tabby” or “cabbie.”)

“Why’s it spelled Baby?”

“It was a guy’s name. Historically. He was a historical guy.”

“I’ll say it Baby.” (Rhymes with “maybe.”)

“Then you’ll be wrong. It’s historical.”

Zizi’s head goes back to the phone book. He peruses listings for some time. Finally: “There’s no Marentette on Baby. But there’s one on South. Did you mean South?”

“No, Baby.”

“I think it must be the one on South,” he says. “Let’s call.”He grabs the phone abruptly and begins to dial, mouthing the digits of the phone number silently to himself. “It’s ringing,” he says. Then he thrusts the receiver into my hand and smushes it against my face.
There is an old woman on the other end of the phone.

“What?” she says.

Zizi: “Say hello.”

“Hello.”

“What?” the woman says again. She coughs. It’s a horrible, phlegmy sound.

Zizi: “Ask for Chris.”

“Is Chris there?” I say. My voice is quavering.

“Who’s Chris?” the woman shouts into my ear. More phlegm.

Zizi’s watching me, trying to summarize the situation in my ear. “Where’s Chris?” he whispers.
I ignore the shouting old woman in my ear long enough to say to him, “I don’t know. She doesn’t know him.”

Meanwhile, the woman bellows: “Why are you calling me? Who are you? Who’s Chris?” She has a whimper in her voice. She might cry.

“Hang up the phone,” says Zizi.

So I do.

“Go brush your teeth and get into your pajamas.”

I head to the bathroom.

As I’m brushing my teeth in the tiny bathroom, standing on a stool he’s left out so I can reach the sink and the mirror easily, I hear the phone ring. Zizi answers and is conversing with someone while I’m away. I finish brushing my teeth and reach for the mouthwash bottle he’s left on the counter. The liquid inside is a tasty-looking mint green. But when I get a capful of it in my mouth I’m surprised by the burn, the unbearable mintiness of it on my tongue.
Then I notice a spider crawling out of the drain of the ancient sink. I almost swallow the mouthwash in shock, but at the last moment spit it out, mostly in the drain, on the spider, some on my t-shirt.

Then, bam, Zizi’s knocking on the bathroom door in his imperious manner.

“Are you finished?” he says.

I put the mouthwash back and exit.

“What’s all over your shirt?” he asks.

“Listerine.”

“You’re supposed to spit it in the drain.”

He shakes his head. “Get into your pajamas.” He’s holding them, Superman pajamas folded and packed by my mother.

As I’m changing, he says, “Somebody’s coming over.”

“Now?”

“Yes. You can say hello but then you have to go to bed.”

“Who is it?”

He smirks. “A friend of mine.”

“What’s his name?”

Zizi comes over. “You’re putting this on wrong he says. It’s inside out.”

He tugs my pajama shirt back over my raised arms and readjusts it, brusquely.

“There.”

“What’s his name?” I ask again. “Your friend.”

“It’s a lady.”

“Oh.”

“You like Wonder Woman, right?”

“Sure.”

“She looks like Wonder Woman. Better even.”

“Oh,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant, but suddenly excited. Wonder Woman is beautiful.

“And her name’s Tammy.”

We sit on the couch together, him with his hair combed nicely, me in my Superman pajamas, waiting for Wonder Tammy to arrive. It feels like forever because he leaves the television off. Finally, the apartment buzzer rings and he gets up from the couch to buzz open the door.
We wait another minute while his friend climbs the stairs from the lobby to the apartment.
Then a knock at the door.

When he opens to let her in, I stand and turn. I expect beauty, a heartstopping woman in spangles and stars. Instead: somebody old like him. A woman in make-up and blue jeans. She chews her gum loudly.

He lets her in and turns to me. “See? What’d I tell you? Just like Wonder Woman!”

The woman, Tammy, smiles at me. “Hi. I’ve heard about you.”

“Hello,” I say, trying to be polite.

Zizi kisses her then. Like I’ve never seen him kiss my grandmother.

Then he hurries me off to bed.

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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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