George T. Mormann

Category: Short Stories

barfly


Being a trucker, you take a small piece of someplace whenever you leave. In Detroit, a stray brick from the wall of a derelict factory where you used to deliver. In Sioux Falls, the plucked feather of a grouse that adorned your mesh cap and gave rise to your CB radio handle, Chief. In Reno, you caught the elusive barfly, whose life cycle had spanned the sweated rings of innumerable beer mugs, whose glazed eyes projected a million glints from the shade of stained glass windows, and who wandered into traffic, buzzed, to play chicken with you, the weary traveler.

Metallurgy

Photo-Prompt-Sept-2017-300x200

An obtuse heart locket, pentacle and curiously enough, a dog’s bone — gifts from boyfriends one, two, four? — in no respective order. They had long wrestled at the hollow of her bosom. Their chains pulled the hairs on the back of her neck.

She googled “reverse smelting,” for it was the ore from which these metals were born she’d wished back. Instead, she wound up with a puddle and poured it into a crumpled water bottle. She watched years of her sweat escape the hollows of the bottle, innumerable voids as minuscule as the hairs on the back of her neck.

*This was originally an entry for a photo prompt story. The selected story is here.

Kev, the Butterfly

     Kev and I grew up together, but weren’t friends. We despised each other, but in that sort of boyish rivalry, he being the bully and I being his fodder, that wanes into harmless shenanigans as you get older. I also say it because he’s dead. Calling him what he was might imply that I’m pleased he no longer exists, which I’m not. Better to cast him as likable than as a prick, at least for his sake.
     Kev never outgrew that phase which envelops all us young men: burgeoning masculinity — it’s what killed him. One night he tried felling a tree, only he did so with a Honda Civic, and he was drunk. Story goes that it was the first night Kev had tried alcohol, but I know this to be untrue. At thirteen he was caught pocketing a fifth of bottom shelf vodka from the Walgreens on West Theodore. Twice.
     Kev’s accident happened two days before the start of our Senior year. I didn’t hear of his death until a week later, in the hallways, where I saw classmates wearing tee-shirts brandishing his last yearbook photo with his name, birthday, and that final Saturday of summer break air-brushed in bright, bubbly lettering, like those shirts you get made at carnivals.
     I walked up to one of the girls wearing this tee-shirt. She looked familiar, but her name escaped me. I asked if there’d be a funeral, or if it already happened. That’s where she may have gotten the tee-shirt, I wondered. “There’s gonna be, like, a memorial(?), or something, soon,” she said, and darted off before I could say anymore. I’m sure she knew who I was. White Urkel, as Kev called me. Perhaps reviling me was her special way to honor the boy to whom she gave his first blow job. Alexa! That’s her name.
     The memorial service was held a month later. His family had him cremated. From the gossip I’d heard about the scene of the crash, an open casket was not an option to consider. It was at St. John’s, a neighborhood church within walking distance for most who lived in town. The service was just short of standing room only, and the doors leading into the church were left open, allowing the stifling heat of crowded mourners mingle with the late August air.
     I attended out of curiosity, because I wanted to hear what would be said about Kev. They would paint an angel out of him to be sure. Kev’s little brother followed each of his stories with, “and then Kev would say, ‘don’t tell mom.’” It drew restrained laughter from the congregation, listening to a young man confess to a multitude of crimes against their neighbors: rosebushes crushed under the tires of bikes and birdhouses shattered with baseball bats. Yet the congregation laughed. His brother’s dead; they let him speak with impunity. Me and Kev’s Freshman Biology teacher, Mr. Lauder, spoke briefly, noting Kev’s fondness for the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which was inappropriate given the circumstances, but was the most honest thing said. I do recall Kev murmuring that as he lapped me during our annual running of the mile in P.E. Kev thought he was the fittest, but failed to actually grasp the context. Expressions of strength belonged solely to him. Mr. Lauder didn’t mention Kev’s consistent D average. Again, in respect to the dead, we seek to polish a rough stone. I thought of saying something, but there was nothing I could say that was free of his animus towards me. That time he chucked a softball at my groin, how he’d ride up to my house and throw pop-snaps at my dog, or flinging green beans at me during lunch. Shit, he’d even stuff them in his pocket and ambush me in Social Studies. And that Honda Civic he plowed into a tree belonged to his ex-girlfriend’s brother. He beat the kid up and stole his keys; the stitches were still fresh in his cheek while a town grieved the sudden loss of one of their boys. The way they’re handling this is less about reminiscing and more about casting him into sainthood. They’re giving him accolades for traits that he boasted of, but never possessed. Screw it, he was a prick.
     But his mother approached the altar and I realized how necessary it all was. She took to the podium (something no one seemed to have expected) and a remarkable coincidence was witnessed. Before she said a word, a white butterfly had strayed into the church, presumably through the open doors, but let’s just call it fate, and it began to cascade towards the altar, coasting above us all like a flower bud in an eternal breeze. People gasped at the sight, a toddler pointed to the butterfly and said, wah-wah, causing all the women to swoon. Kev’s mother’s knees went limp, buckled. She grabbed hold of the podium to keep herself from fainting outright. The butterfly fluttered near her, danced around her head, teased her and everyone with it’s presence. As soon as Kev’s mother and several other mourners cupped their hands and tried to capture the small butterfly, it escaped from whence it came. A wave of tissue as white as the butterfly rose to dry wet faces in every pew. From the look of it, they were all dabbing their noses and eyes with their own Kev, the butterfly. What a miracle. Even I was duped.
     Having heard enough, I followed the butterfly out of the church, enticed to ask it a question, half-expecting, half-hoping a flutter over my head for an answer. “Prove that you’re Kev,” I said. It’s angelic wings flickered onto a twig above a stream of rainwater in a ditch, where in an instant the hallow butterfly sufficed the appetite of a hungry toad, which blinked as it swallowed him whole. He was just being young and didn’t know any better.

Cancún

     I woke up in a less familiar Mexico. The Mexico I knew was contained to storefronts like those on W. 18th; taquerias and cantinas with a neon cactus glowing through frostbitten windows. Midwestern brick is painted adobe tan and depicts street-side exhibitions of Azteca deco and bucolic murals of the Tex-Mex fringes, where cactus shadows are swallowed by the desert come dusk. It’s synonymous with the borderlands, but where we landed, it was just an afterthought. The sober American vista, as far reaching as it is, cannot be glanced at, cannot to size up like a thumb raised to the moon. Palm trees bend toward the sunrise along La Zona Hotelera. Our taxi delivers us to a Riviera with so many likenesses of suburban decadence — Outback Steakhouse, Margaritavilles, Señor Frog’s — las casas del Bud Light. Cancún, crown of the Yucatán, a foreigner’s comfortable respite from true Mexico.
     Skip coffee, head to the pool bar for a tequila sunrise. I look into the windows of the resort, peek in on brunch crowd, and watch them — those families from Bakersfield and right-outside-Cleveland — eat chilaquiles and french toast. Behind me there are men moving stones, building a bigger patio. Their hammers clang in unison with forks tolling against mimosa flutes in the dining room. I see tourists’ lips flicker and gape all the while hearing the slang of my coworkers back in the states. This week, I’ve traded in my steel-toed boots for a pair of flip-flops, but still turn to join the workers as they pause to look to the beach as a lambently draped figure dips her foot in the sea.

     By bus we travel inland to Chichen Itza. Cancun '12It rains on the way there, but our guide Arturo is compelled to assure everyone aboard that the dripping in the vents above us is from the air conditioning. He offers us Gatorade at two US dollars each, and asks us not to crap in the rear lavatory. Solamente numero uno.
     I fell asleep and woke up to the same scenery — a freshly watered span of trees swaying up and down like they were fanning the bus across the freeway. The water, whether it was truly rain or just a/c condensation, cooled my scalp as it brought with it a stream of chilled air. Arturo was describing the earth of the Yucatán before I fell asleep. How thin yet rich the soil is, how the plant life flourishes because of it, how impassable the untouched jungle is. Now he’s telling us about the ancient city, Tulum. The Spaniards could only write about the city from their ships. That was some six-hundred years ago… from our resort it’s a two hour drive.
     The skies cleared as we entered the gates of Chichen Itza. The path leading to the site is a winding flea market of native bric-a-brac and novelties; tables of sugar skulls and Mayan calendars fashioned into magnets and analog clocks and printed onto tie-dye tee shirts. The peddlers compete with Arturo for our attention. Regalos de Maya, Come take look, Cheapah than K-Mart! Sellers run up to us and offer real wooden masks, insisting that any tourist tap it to prove to us all how wooden it is. One Mayan dollar, they’ll say. That’s forty dollars to you, Arturo says. Even the descendants of the Mayans themselves, the Nativos, approach us with handfuls of embroidered hankies for twenty pesos each.
     Arturo instructs our group to clap towards the steps of the Temple Kukulkan, and when we do, a moan begets from the peak of the temple. To breathe life into the temple is to revive it from centuries of silence, and there are fewer simple joys than to hear our own echo. Within this temple is a smaller temple, Arturo said. Here, the Mayans had defeated an enemy, and to honor their victory had built an even bigger temple over their enemy’s. Eventually, the Spanish arrived and you know how the story goes, but they kept the temple, adopting it in their language, El Castillo. Today, a fence surrounds the entire site. Property of the Mexican Government — ticket prices vary.
     Conquerors are conquered. Subjugators face revolution. Profiteers live forever, enshrining so many legacies onto the façades of coffee mugs, of which I bought two.

The Fish Projects

Every week or so last year I would drive to a not-so-local Meijer in the early hours of the morning, where my preferred brand of cheap coffee is sold. Chock-Full-o-Nuts, in the big thirty-nine ounce canister. Anywhere between three to five o’clock in the morning is when I’d shop, and I’d be one of the only customers in the store. Oftentimes the only one as it would be, and a few employees stocking what is supposedly “fresh” produce. Before picking out a canister of Chock-Full-o-Nuts, I would walk to the pet department, and stare at the fish. I was never interested in buying any fish, even though I have two aquariums of my own. The conditions of the fish tanks in the store are far from good, and that alone discourages me from buying any. But there was a certain catharsis in the moment as a whole. Early in the morning when the day was at its coldest and darkest outside, and everyone was asleep, besides myself and the lettuce stockers, I’d go and watch the fish. The silence, being alone, and watching fish float around, both of us staring out and within, but in our own purposeful ways. The pastoral quality of this soothed me. I did it often, and still do, despite finding Chock-Full-o-Nuts at another, closer, 24 hour grocery store. But that store has no fish, and I need that brief moment of serenity.

—–

Are live-bearing fish from Central America
Best suited for “Community” aquariums
Minimum tank size: 10 gallons
Diet: fish flakes, vegetable matter
1.99 ea.
        Tucked in the corner of the super center was a petite wall of plastic cubes filled with water, and an annoying hum that resonated throughout the department of pets and pet supplies as soon as you entered it. It was the sound of the filters not cleaning the water, or so it would seem by the condition of the aquariums. Plastic enclosures, unlike the glass cases at the jewelry counter, the electronics displays, and the locked sliding door of the condom case.
        There was a thin layer of gravel laid out in each aquarium cube. Gravel wasn’t all that necessary, but it masked the accumulation of feces and waste that wasn’t sifted out from those loud filters. Instead of anyone taking notice of the monotonous buzzing of the filters, and in turn, acknowledging the dirtiness of the living conditions, it was ignored. Each a product of the other, unavoidable, and without a solution. Each aquarium had two or three colorful plastic plants, to further mask the grittiness.
        A dead fish had rested upon the gravel of one of the aquariums. A tiger barb, from Southern Asia. A pineapple swordtail, from the murky rivers of Central America, was butting heads with a baby cichlid, from the murky lakes of Central Africa, fighting over the tailfin of the dead fish. Its corpse was chewed away by its tankmates and a couple tiny snails that sucked away at any sign of life in each aquarium. It was a treat from the usual fish flakes that were irregularly handed into each aquarium, and the algae that grew in long strands up and down the housing walls, swooshing back and forth from the filters pushing water in and out, but not actually cleaning anything.
        Hundreds of fish stacked upon each other, crowded together with fish from different rivers, fighting for food, the delusion of territory that didn’t exist in such small quarters, and sparing over the floating corpses of dead tankmates. By far the most congested aquarium was that of the mollies. Cheap fish, plain fish, easily bred fish, and inbred to the point that their lives were shortened as soon as they were born. There had to be forty or fifty mollies, stuck in a mere seven gallons, exhausted from swimming into one another, merely floating in one dense cloud of themselves, floating above the dead and dying. Perpetually waiting for food, but picking away at algae in the meantime.
        A male molly courted a female molly to the bottom, above the filth and gravel. He wrapped his body around her and without resistance, they bred. They embraced, if only for a brief moment. Their only able claim to naturalness in this artificial environment. They were just fish, unable to consider what it meant to birth more into all this.
        Looking into the aquarium, a customer said to himself, “They shouldn’t be doing that,” and walked away without purchasing any fish.