Far-Off Places

SET IN THE 1990s UNDER THE AMBER BUZZ OF PARKING LOT LIGHTS, THIS STORY FROM MOWDY’S UPCOMING COLLECTION, FLOYD HARBOR, IS A DARKLY PIQUANT EVOCATION OF TEENAGE WASTELAND

“These hot dogs are the same as the ones at Floyd Harbor 7-Eleven,” Rob said. “You like them, Jeff.” Rob had eaten his hot dog before they left the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on Guy Lombardo Avenue in Freeport, where they had bought the sheet of acid.

Jeff’s hot dog was still in its cardboard sleeve on the dashboard. He didn’t take his eyes off the white lines of Sunrise Highway. He couldn’t stomach a hot dog.

“Is this about Corrine?” Rob asked.

“I feel hollow inside.”

“You need to eat something.”

“The road is swaying.”

“You need to eat. She’s out having a good time. That’s what we should do.” It was obvious Jeff was not over Corrine, though he insisted the whole drive from Nassau County that he’d forgotten about her. After Corrine broke up with him, he had alluded to jumping off Smith Point Bridge with a weight on his ankle. He’d calmed down since then, but he wasn’t back to his old self yet. Corrine was still a touchy subject. It was a mistake to mention her.

“How would you know what she’s doing?”

“Hypothetical,” Rob said. “Suppose. You know, there are other fish out there.”

“Drop it already,” Jeff said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Scrub pine gave way to strip malls, signaling the approach of exit 58. Rob had nothing more to say about Corrine that would straighten Jeff out. The one thing he did know was that Corrine wasn’t so great in any aspect that any guy she spurned should jump off a bridge. If that was the case, they both would be dead.

“Let’s get some food and relax. How do you feel about that?”

“I can’t breathe right,” Jeff said. “Something’s happening to my lungs.”

“I don’t feel anything. I think we got ripped off,” Rob said. The last time they’d bought a sheet of acid and tested it to determine its worth, the streets of Floyd Harbor became canals like those in far-off and exotic places, showing them a murky image of themselves in traffic light as they peered from the curb into dark waters. Rob just didn’t feel the flood coming this time. He wasn’t feeling anything. He probably shouldn’t have sold the four hits to Darrel Day at the 7-Eleven in Bellport. Darrel Day was in on something with Grady. If they thought Rob had ripped them off, there would be a price to pay.

 

The 7-Eleven was off by itself on William Floyd Parkway, about two miles from the Smith Point Bridge. The brightest thing at night, it attracted anything in the dark seeking a sign of life. The night the streets of Floyd Harbor were canals like those of far-off places, Jeff likened that 7-Eleven to a lighthouse. Rob said it was more like one of those big buoys with a light on it. Jeff said no, it was a lighthouse, it was far too big for a buoy, plus if it was a buoy it would be in the middle of a canal that they formerly knew as a street. Then Rob pointed out that the store was inside a parking lot and the parking lot was made of street material. Therefore, 7-Eleven was in the canal and so a buoy.

Whatever it was going to be tonight, Rob went inside, bought a hot dog, spooned sauerkraut on it, and put a single-serve packet of mustard in his shirt pocket. “Eat this,” Rob said to Jeff back in the car.

“What coin is this?” He held up a nickel.

“Five cents. Eat this hot dog.”

“Give me a quarter.”

“Eat first. Come on.”

Unhappily, Jeff ate the hot dog. When he finished, Rob give him a quarter. Then Jeff got out of the car and walked to the edge of the light, to the pay phone on the far end of the parking lot, way over by the parkway. He picked up the phone.

“That’s not going to help you,” Rob said, but Jeff dropped the quarter in and dialed. As Jeff huddled into the case of the pay phone, waiting, a man and a woman came from the shadows of one of those new homes stamped onto the woods that separated the store from a peopled neighborhood. Holding hands, the man and woman entered the parking lot’s glow, the woman in a shiny purple dress, the man in red lifeguard shorts and sandals. As they entered the blinding store like fluttering moths, Rob saw a bigger picture of life as most people live it. Everybody has a light they strive toward. Corrine is Jeff’s light, and having a great time is Rob’s. That man and woman: the beer they carry out of 7-Eleven is their light, and they were drawn to 7-Eleven to get it.

Then, in a fit of laughter, Rob envisioned a man with a moth head in place of his own, spooning sauerkraut onto a hot dog in cackling fluorescent light.

Jeff was crying into the phone. He slammed the receiver. He pitched his car keys at the parkway and walked toward the car. He stopped, doubled over, and puked.

Rob opened his door. “What are you doing?”

One hand was on his knee, the other on his stomach.

Then Jeff was in the car. He seemed calm. “I know what’s up. I know what’s going on.”

“We need those keys,” Rob said.

 

From where Rob stood with his hot dog—by the 7-Eleven entrance, next to the measuring strip on the door that told his height (five-eight? Nine?)—he could see Jeff tearing up the median grass between the lanes of the parkway. Jeff was serious about finding his keys.

“Hey, Jeff, do you want to finish this?”

“We’ll never find the keys.”

“Yes, we will!” Rob shouted back. He threw the hot dog at the garbage can for three points. It landed in the parking lot.

Jeff would have made that shot. Jeff would’ve played for the high school basketball team again, if not for getting kicked out when he broke a row of locker doors after seeing Corrine talking to another guy in the hallway. Jeff had also played in the summer at Teen Recreation Basketball Night in the beach parking lot. From the pavilion in the dunes that separate the parking lot from the beach, Rob had a view of all the good times at Teen Recreation. He’d warmed up to his role as spectator.

 

“We’ll never find those keys,” Rob said. The median grass lapped at his arms and neck. And funny how the daisies stamped onto his brain and multiplied, and Rob could watch them thrive with his eyes closed.

Jeff plucked grass by the fistful.

“There has to be a better way.”

Jeff didn’t answer. He kept tearing up the grass. Their spines ripped as though a wet mouth were biting down, sweeping back and forth.

“The ground is alive,” Rob said. “You’re killing it. Go look for your keys.”

“The keys are in my pocket.”

Rob opened his eyes. “You found them?”

“They were never lost.”

“Oh. Let’s go to the beach,” Rob said. “I saw your car floating by the buoy, across the canal. I’ll swim you there.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I guess we don’t have to worry about Darrel Day and Grady.”

“I just want to talk to her.”

“That’s a bad idea, Jeff. Let’s swim to the car. Then we’ll drive to the beach.”

“Stop saying that.”

“Saying what?”

Jeff was standing now, pacing the median’s valley. He looked at the keys in his hand. “You don’t even know what’s going on right now. Everything’s a joke.”

“Were you really on the phone with Corrine?”

“Just tell me what’s going on,” Jeff said.

“We’re going to the beach is what, just like we planned before. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“You don’t know how serious I am. Everything is changing.”

“You need to relax. Try breathing. Try closing your eyes. See if you can still see me with your eyes closed.”

Jeff paced, biting down on the knuckle of his pointer finger, and then he looked at Rob with an expression that said, “You know what? Let’s just have a good time.” Jeff’s car started, and Rob opened his eyes. Jeff was pulling his blue Honda out of the 7-Eleven, in the opposite direction to the beach.

 

The 7-Eleven was neither a buoy nor a lighthouse. It was a small island. Rob was stranded.

“I told you not to call me anymore,” she said.

“This isn’t Jeff.”

“I know who this is. My parents are sleeping. What do you want from me?”

“I’m the last man here.”

“Jesus,” she said, “what are you on?”

“Put Jeff on the phone.”

“Are you retarded?”

“He didn’t get there yet?”

“He’s coming here?”

“He’ll be here really soon.”

“What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Seriously, what’s you guys’s problem?”

“Tell Jeff I’m taking a swim to the beach. I’ll meet him there.”

“He’s really coming here?”

“Tell him I said to relax. Don’t tell him I called, though.”

“He has to stop this. He’s—shit, he’s outside. Oh, great. This is so retarded.”

“Why is everything retarded? Put him on the phone.” >

“My parents are sleeping,” she whispered. “Shit, he’s coming to the door.”

“Put him on the phone.”

She hung up on him again. Rob dropped another quarter in the slot and dialed. Her line was busy.

 

“Corrine is trouble,” Rob said.

Two boys had entered the parking lot on bicycles.

“I heard that,” said the bigger of the two. He wore a red bandana on his head. A purple spot marked his neck where someone had sucked on it. “My advice? Stay away from her. We’re trying to have a good time now, but it’s impossible. We can’t find anyone to buy us beer.”

Rob looked at the smaller kid for a while, trying to decide what kind of bird he looked like most.

“Can you get us some beer?” Bird Boy said after a while.

“Name your poison.”

Bird Boy handed Rob a wad of singles. “Just get something cheap.”

“Yeah,” Bandana Kid said, “get whatever you can get.”

In addition to its convenient hours of operation, its selection of ready-to-go meals, and its role as a beacon of life in the dead of night, the 7-Eleven was an excellent location for meeting like-minded people. Rob remembered when he was the age of those two kids, riding his bike to the convenience store with a fistful of dollars, trying to find the cool guy who would get him a sixer. He could envision human interactions, such as the quick exchange he’d just had with his new friends, as a continuous pattern throughout history. This was shown in the repetition of blue ocean waves crashing on the shore for all eternity. It was a natural and simple model, but stripped of its context in the actual world. If Rob factored in the sun turning ocean water into clouds, and clouds raining down on pastures to help grass grow, which was eaten by farm animals, and that those animals were ground into the hot dogs now displayed on the counter next to the register—hot dogs that would be consumed by humans, who were at the top of the food chain, each generation equal to one link, connected to the link that followed and that which proceeded in an ever-growing lineage being dragged across time and space, then dragged, Rob wondered, by what?

 

“Hi, can I help you?” said the clerk. He interrupted the flow of Rob’s thought.

Then there was a slap on the glass door behind him. It was Bandana Kid. He pointed at his wrist, and Bird Boy shrugged as though cold. The weather was pleasant enough. They were uncomfortable, they wanted Rob to hurry, and they were using charades to show it. Rob could almost see the watch and feel the chill in the air.

In the parking lot, Bandana Kid said, “Is this a joke?”

“This is a gift.” Rob gave them each a hot dog.

“What about the beer?”

“What beer?”

Bandana Kid frowned. “What the fuck, man?”

“I have something better,” Rob said. He kept the acid sheet in a 7-Eleven napkin he got that afternoon from that first 7-Eleven in Freeport.

“What is it?” said Bird Boy.

“I know what that is,” Bandana Kid said. He held a hand out to Rob, and Bird Boy did the same. Rob gave them two each and took another himself.

A world flooded to the stars awaited those boys. Bandana Kid had been there before, but Bird Boy was taking his first flight. Rob marveled at how he pedaled after his friend down the street, their bodies tottering side to side and arms pumping, elbows out like wings. Then the glint of their bicycles vanished in a blink. Clouds had drifted into the sky, brighter than the night already buried in the distant past, way back to when Jeff and Rob were looking for the keys. Jeff had been gone forever. Would he return? Calling Corrine again as a way of reaching him was futile. But still Rob held the beeping pay phone to his head. Busy, busy. How did his fingernails get so dirty? The pink spatter of Jeff’s eaten hot dog basked in the store light, and where Bandana Kid had pressed against the glass door, oily handprints gleamed—all markers of a time gone by, a night unreachable now except by two boys in their prime, pumping toward the setting moon. Night was leaving Floyd Harbor to rise above some far-off place where a police siren skittered like a cicada on a screen door. Maybe Rob should have perched on Bird Boy’s handlebars and followed the pull of the moon, but the boys, by now, were long gone.

 

Rob got in the passenger seat. “Jeff? Jeff. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff.” Rob had nothing else to say to him. He had forgotten where they’d left off.

“Everything’s anew,” Jeff said.

“What does it mean?” Rob said. “What are you looking at outside?”

“It’s time to go.” Jeff adjusted the rearview mirror. His hand was bloody.

“What happened there?”

“I put my hand in glass.”

“At Corrine’s house?”

“At her window.”

“Jesus. There’s blood on your pants.”

Jeff looked at his hand.

“You need bandages.”

“We need gas.” A smile crept across Jeff’s face, and then he laughed. “I was just thinking of all the meat I am, just meat running around with ideas in my head.” He fiddled with the car’s cigarette lighter.

“So, the thing going on with you and Corrine is what? What are we doing?”

“I thought we were going to the beach, no?”

 

Rob had to choose between a box of small bandages and a first-aid kit the size of a cinder block: one product too little, the other too much. The convenience store was not convenient at all. It contained only extremes. First Jeff, now this. The same with Corrine. She’d stopped looking like a little Hawaiian boy hop-scotching to the end of her driveway and advanced into the form of a woman on the corner watching high school boys swarm under a basketball net. She had breasts. She wore short shorts. That was the day Rob laid down thirty dollars for the player who could hit the most three-pointers in a row. Rob told Corrine he almost didn’t recognize her. She looked grown up. She smiled.

“Hi,” the clerk said.

Rob stood at the register.

“Someone get hurt?”

“Yes,” Rob said. “My friend who threw up a hot dog before is now bleeding.”

“He’s vomiting blood?”

“No.”

“Okay,” the clerk said. “Just the kit? No hot dog this time?”

“What hot dog?”

“You always buy a hot dog.”

“No, not this time. What do I owe you?”

The kit scanned to fifteen dollars, way too expensive.

“Just give me some napkins instead.”

“You need to buy something to get napkins. Maybe he needs a hospital?”

“I did buy something,” Rob said, and he gave an account of each occasion, working his way back to the stop at the 7-Eleven on the way home from Nassau County, where Rob bought the first hot dog and took only the one napkin he needed. To that, the clerk said Rob needed to make a new purchase, that in the time between when Rob last bought something and now the window of napkin-getting had closed.

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“You hang out here all night, you throw your trash around. Your friends dirty the glass. Who cleans it? Who cleans the parking lot?”

“Fine,” Rob said. “I’ll buy a hot dog.”

Jeff knocked on the door. He cupped his bloody hand against the glass and searched Rob out, blinded by the store light. This was a threshold he did not wish to cross.

“See. This is what I’m talking about,” the clerk said.

“But now I’m buying a hot dog,” Rob said, and he shoved a stack of napkins in his pocket.

 

“How many of those did you eat tonight?” Jeff said in the parking lot.

“I bought this one for you,” Rob said, putting the hot dog on the dashboard and digging the napkins out of his pocket.

“No way. I’m not eating that.”

“I don’t expect you to eat it. Hold these with your fist.” He put the napkins in Jeff’s murky hand. It was impossible to make sense of the cut with the blood gathered around it.

“I can’t make a fist.”

“You’re not trying.”

“I can’t feel my fingers. I feel sick just looking at that thing.”

“Don’t look. Do you have tape?”

“I’m slipping back in time. How bad am I bleeding?”

“I just need something to use as tape, and then we can get back to normal. Do you have any tape?”

“I don’t know,” Jeff said. “Look in the trunk.”

The rear bumper sticker said i live in floyd harbor. In the trunk Rob found a pair of high school basketball shorts, a length of chain, a cinder block, and a roll of duct tape in a black plastic bag. It was the tape Jeff had used to reattach the back bumper, the kind of tape that fixes everything. What a welcome sight.

Back in the car, Rob taped the wound. “Change your pants for these shorts.”

But instead of changing, Jeff said, “I want you to throw that hot dog away.”

“We’ll save this one for the beach,” Rob said. He had a feeling now that he’d been waiting all night to go to the beach. At night, the ocean was a deep unknowable mystery as wide as the sky, and Rob could stand at its edge. He was ready for something so grand.

“Na-uh.”

“If it’s a problem, I’ll put the hot dog in the glove box.”

“It’s not the hot dog.”

“You’re not in your right mind. Let’s get out of this light. Maybe she has the cops after you. I heard sirens before when I was on the pay phone.”

“Who did you call?”

“Okay, she didn’t call the cops, but she’s really upset with you. You need to give her space. You need to think. That’s why you should go to the beach. You can meditate there. It’s the best place for you to be right now—thinking and meditating and straightening out.”

“I don’t know how to meditate.”

“Just close your eyes and breathe deep, like this.” A universe of cream-colored, hot-dog-patterned wallpaper blew through Rob’s mind, and then the car was moving. Jeff wore his golden basketball shorts. They were going in the direction of the beach.

“You can meditate,” Jeff said. “I’m shooting hoops.”

Rob was glad to hear this. Jeff playing basketball was like a fish finding water. He was a natural. Jeff was the one who had hit seven three-point shots in a row and won Rob’s thirty dollars that fateful day.

 

“Don’t call me anymore,” Corrine had said. “Okay? Don’t say anything to Jeff. I’m sorry.”

Rob didn’t tell Jeff. Whatever reputation Corrine had gotten, she earned on her own. What was it Bandana Kid heard about her? Rob should have asked him, but he and Bird Boy were somewhere far off in Mastic Beach, in that tangled string of yellow dots across the bay. Lights on the Smith Point Bridge looked like a roller coaster. The ocean called, and the basketball court on the far corner of the lot was lit like a stage under the tall question mark of a lamppost.

“Are you playing?”

“This is where,” Jeff said. “Right here I kissed her the first time.”

“No,” Rob said, “you kissed her over there, near the bridge.”

“I meant in general,” Jeff said, “in this area.”

“Hey, guess what? I already sold four of these.” Rob’s pocket was empty. In the other pocket he had a few dollars, in his shirt pocket a packet of mustard. “Jeff, can we go back?”

Jeff’s eyes were closed.

“I lost it, Jeff. We need to go back.”

“There’s no going back.” Jeff looked far away. He took small sips of the salty air. “My skin is too dry.” This must have been around the time Jeff decided he was turning into a fish. Or had his transformation started earlier in the night? Whatever put the idea in his head? When Rob later found Jeff’s car parked at the apex of the bridge, he thought his friend had followed through with his ridiculous threat to drown himself. He couldn’t know Jeff took a dive, swam across the bay, turned up naked at the gas station on Neighborhood Road, and was wrestled into the back of a police cruiser.

All Rob knew now was that he had to see the ocean. He had waited long enough. What else could he do? Walk the two miles to 7-Eleven? The clerk would come out to clean the parking lot and throw the napkin in the trash. Only Rob had put the acid napkin in his pocket, hadn’t he? Where was it?

Where was the moon? Time had slipped away. His ankles sank into sand, and the ocean licked his feet like a tame, idiotic giant. A salty mist whetted his appetite. Rob wished he’d remembered to take that hot dog with him. He was being so forgetful. He was careless. A string of sauerkraut had dried on his shirt. He had that mustard in his pocket. Its tang washed down the sauerkraut and then coated a hollow space inside him. He could feel it in his tear ducts. It wasn’t a good feeling at all. 

 

Copyright © Joel Mowdy, from Floyd Harbor, to be published by Catapult in May 2019.

 

Top Image:  Fools Gold (2016), oil on linen panel, 8” x 10”, by Rachel Moseley, a realist artist who recently moved to California. More of Moseley's work appears in the print version of the July 2018 issue of EAST.

Joel Mowdy