Writers @ Work Fellowship Winner, fiction
There’s No Such Things as Accidents
Bye bye, field of blue.
My father left after my sister was born and when he came back four years later for a week, I happened. An accident.
I had a bad thing when I was 11. With a neighbor, a 14-year-old boy I knew since we were little kids. His freckles turned into pimples. We played basketball. He was strong, the best shooter I knew. I was the worst but he let me play. After a game he invited me over, a block away and no one else home. He mixed milk and orange juice and gave me a giant glass. He told me about his attic. Our building had no attic. He showed me some pictures. He said you’re an “early bloomer.” You’re pretty. You know boys can be pretty. He took me to see his attic. He showed me more pictures. There was a a dim light bulb. I let him. Do things. Things he said he needed. I could not not. There was the smell of mothballs. He was a bad neighbor. I did not go back. Not after the second time when he promised it would be different and it wasn’t.
A six-year-old girl got me in trouble. I was her babysitter. No one home, just us in the afternoon, watching TV on the couch, homework I’m not doing on my lap. Hot afternoon. Weak air conditioning. I make us pop tarts, the smell of pop tarts. She appears in my lap, puckers her lips, wide lips for a six year old. She pushes her lips against my lips and then runs away. Come and find me. She is in her closet, wearing mardi gras beads. She hugs my leg. I walk to the couch with her clinging to my leg. I peel her hands off and pick up my homework. Three afternoons a week, she does the same thing. Puckers and presses, runs and hides, hugs and clings. Then one day she hands me a rainbow ball can you play catch? I put my homework down and we play catch. She drops the ball and pulls on the front of my shorts can I see what’s in your shorts? I said no that day. And the next. And the next. And when she saw it she ran away. And the next time she ran away. And the next time she touched it. And then she told her mother. I never touched her. It didn’t matter. I was 12, an early bloomer. Bad neighbor.
And then I was 13 and there was this goth girl, white skin and black hair and black eyes. She teased us and dared us. The bad kids hit on her in the stairwell at school, just a quick grab or a feel, and she kicked but always missed. She cursed but never screamed. She never told. Who would she tell? She hated them more. I only did it because the others did and if I wasn’t one of them I wasn’t one of anybody. I think she believed that too. I saw how she looked when she saw them coming and she didn’t look that way when she saw me coming, or not as much. And with me she didn’t miss. She hit me right in the face with her zippery pocket book. I felt my eye. My eye was bloody. She was afraid, she didn’t want to get in trouble so she rushed up to me are you Ok are you Ok, OMG OMG OMG, and when I said yes and wasn’t mad, she asked could she be my girlfriend? Hand on my eye I said she could only be my girlfriend if she really liked me – where did these words come from I never spoke to girls – and if we did it she’d have to like it or I wouldn’t do it. And then I started walking away but she caught me and said I like you. I’d like it. And I said don’t be afraid I won’t get you in trouble, If anyone gets in trouble it’ll be me. She said I like you, I’d like it. Her mascara was smeary. I saw she was pretty. So we did it. Closet in the band room. Dusty old smell. Not really it, just with our hands. Fast. Hard. The noises in her throat did not sound like she was liking it and I tried to stop but she wouldn’t let me, her other hand on my hand, or maybe she was trying to stop me but I couldn’t stop, and the noises got louder and we were caught and I was right. I was the one in trouble.
There were other problems. I started fighting. I went away to a place for boys 14-17 with those kinds of problems. The boys liked fighting and other stuff. The other stuff. We got no girls here. You’re pretty. I wanted to get along. Whatever it was I said yes. Say yes first, say yes the loudest. The furthest, the fastest. With two of us or three us or whatever. The fighting, I didn’t want to do that at all. But I couldn’t stop myself. And they tricked me. In the basement, the one room with no carpet, smooth floor shiny like the shaved heads of the new boys. Boys 14-17, we didn’t have a chance. I said I would wrestle, not fight. Wrestle? Wrestle!? Laughing at me. I must be a failure. But I was not small or weak. They played a double trick, those boys, on me and Rico, the short mean boy with the Zs shaved into the side of his fat head. They held me so he could sucker punch me and as soon as he did they let go and said Ok now wrestle. Rico looked afraid now, not like he did when he was sucker punching me in the face. I couldn’t stop. I knew how to wrestle. I learned when they said words like “appropriate outlet.” Slammed his head to the ground. Shiny cement floor in a room that smelled like cleanser. Brain bleed and half gone. I’m sorry, Rico. I did not hate you.
I go away to a different place. New doctors. New meds. There were “substances,” the bad meds. Of course of course. The good meds untaken. The halfway house guard set me up for some furlough, saying you’re aging out soon, you need some experience out there. I’ll go home, I said. He shook his head no. He was right. The visits from my family did not go so well. They talked about work I could get in the cheap neighborhoods, neighborhoods not so nearby. My mother and sister were afraid. I can’t blame them. It was Halloween and my friend the guard told me about a party where they needed a barback for $35 for the whole night it was a lot of money for me. But much less than the $150 they paid me to be the Reaper when they found out I would wear the black robe and carry the scythe and follow orders. “It must be consenting,” that was the rule. Wear nothing under the robe, they said. Why, I said. They’ll just look, they said. Rooms upstairs and down. Attics. Basements. Smell of alcohol and weed and bad perfumes.
With $50 for my friend the guard I was out every weekend because here and there it’s always Halloween and someone wants a Reaper. The scythe was not plastic. It was steel and sharp and sometimes they asked me to prick the skin and sometimes even cut, “consenting only,” they just wanted to gasp or squeal. Until one night a couple found me in a back bedroom with no light but a black light and she was drunk and didn’t want to and he was drunk and wasn’t taking no. He wanted me to act out a scene where I would demand that they do certain things and if they didn’t I’d threaten to do them with the scythe, sharp end or stick end. I said it must be consenting, that was the rule, and the mean drunk he turned on her and said it’s consenting all right and he slapped her and she went for him and he knocked her down and I put the sharp end in his belly. Then I put it in my own.
The meds this time I took them they made me feel flat and I guess that was good. It was good that I did not fit any of the “profiles” they tried to fit me into. It was good that the nurse who wanted me as her boyfriend, her pretty boyfriend, could keep a secret very secret. And this gave me privilege. The shows I liked. More computer time. Extra pudding. When we were discovered, she was fired and she did not say goodbye I believe because they did not let her. They made me promise: not again. I kept this promise. I did not love her.
I was doing well, making progress. Work furlough this time put me in a bakery and off the clock, they start so early. I loved the bakery. The smell of heaven no doubt. Fresh baking bread. Rising warm. Sour dough smells like…yes, that’s what it smells like. The second baker, the one who got there early with me, she was quiet in the dark but as it got light she would talk, and talk and talk, and soon she was making plans, like dreaming aloud. Soon I was in those plans. She had hair like straw and a big, hard face and strong, smooth arms. She 37, me 25, she wants a baby and we can bake one. Such a pretty loaf. We went to her place, a little place, with a small extra room. I had to tell her, tell her everything. The attics, the closets, the basements. And when I did, her hard face turned harder. Then she started to cry. I said they were accidents, all accidents. There’s no such thing as accidents, she said. She cried and cried and not about me, that’s what she said. She kissed me. And kissed me again. And then…took a morning after pill (or so she said) and goodbye. She made me quit the job. She had trouble keeping jobs, she said. She cried again. I maybe would have gone through with it. The pretty loaf. Lucky we didn’t, I guess.
Another bakery, where they didn’t ask questions. I fell in love with a young baker, Jeri. She was young and soft, long dark hair, pretty hair. She was moody, grouchy and sweet. If she was grouchy with me she said she was sorry later. When she said she was sorry she touched my hand, sweet. She didn’t smile at everybody but she smiled at me. I never felt love like that before and I wanted to feel it stronger so I cut back my meds, taking a chance, and it was better and worse, mostly worse, until she fell for another baker, a cool young tat-man. Tattoos on his arms, legs, neck. That helped because it took my hope away. I was OK, unhappy but OK, until I caught them. I worked late one day, til 8 in the evening, up since 4 that morning, I fell asleep on the bench in the changing room. They were right there on the bread table. Flour on their backs. I never saw two bodies together like that, not in real life. I never heard laughter like that. Sweet sour dough.
After that, the smell of dough was a reminder. It was everywhere. It made me hard. I needed relief. I couldn’t always wait to get back to my room. I was careful, I was clean. No one was around. Until once I thought no one was around. They must have fallen asleep in the changing room (like me!), Jeri and the tat-man, and they caught me in the act by the big bowl, the sourest, the best. I know what they thought. They thought it was revenge, poisoning the dough. It was not true. But nobody believed me. Not anyone.
They would not let me work away from the home but I could work, I could “work well,” so I worked in the home, anything they needed and they paid me. I met a junkie trying to get clean and I found him in his room staring at a flame, a candle in a bowl on the floor. I said “no open flames,” that was the rule, and he looked up at me pleading, please, I stare at it for hours, I need it. I joined him. We stared for an hour after dinner. Do you see it? See what? The field of blue. It looked yellow to me, the flame. I said nothing. And then he would talk. He would talk about junk. And fentanyl. How good it was. The only good he ever felt. He would show me, if I could get some. He told me how. He had no money but someone owed him. Don’t do it alone, he said, that’s the thing. You’re OK if you don’t do it alone. He was convincing me and convincing me and it was either do what he asked or tell on him so I told on him. I wanted to do right. Always did. He guessed it was me. Packed up and ready to go he took a swing at me and hit me in the jaw and I stood there stinging and then he spat in my eye and I hit him. He went down.
They were deciding what to do with me and I was afraid. Afraid I would have nowhere to go. I asked if my money was still mine, the account with almost a thousand dollars, and they said yes. Betty, the grey-haired woman in the office, always liked me and she gave me my money and I did what my junkie friend said. Then I went to where you can hire a girl and I asked if she could help and she could. I asked if she could help me hire a boy, too, and she could. She told me I was pretty. I asked her please not to say that again. We went up to her little room and they got the needle ready. There’s enough for three, they said. I know. I asked them to be naked. I took out the bag from my pocket, a small fist, and they said OMG is that more junk and I said, no no no, it’s flour and I asked if I could sprinkle it on them and they said yes. I gave them the rest of my money. Her skin was dark and his too and the flour made them look like ghosts. I said you have a shower, right? Down the hall, she said. You can shower when I’m done. What do you want us to do, he said. I don’t know, I said. Stand. Hold hands. Then I held the needle to my vein and said, here, like this? Yes, she said. It felt good. They got the next one ready and at the last minute I said that’s for me, too, and she said no no are you sure, and I said yes. And then the third one. Tell them it was an accident. And they are standing there, ghosts holding hands the last thing I see.
Hello field of blue.
Jon Fried has collected his short stories into three books: stories about work and life in the corporate age, called Transcendent Guide to Corporate America, which won honorable mention in the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Prize sponsored by Stillhouse Press; stories about romance and relationships called Useless Guide to Modern Romance (in progress); and stories in neither category called Guide for the Unguidable (also in progress, also the name of his blog), which includes “There’s No Such Thing as Accidents.” He has published short fiction in Third Bed, Eclectica, Bartleby Snopes, Map Literary, Scissors & Spackle, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Prick of the Spindle and other literary journals and e-zines, as well as feature stories on New Jersey culture and nightlife for The New York Times. He wrote and produced many songs for a rock band he co-founded called the Cucumbers, which has released several recordings. He is also working on a series of novels based on some colorful characters in his family tree.