An Animal's Guide to Earthly Salvation by Jack R. Johnson
An assistant at an urban veterinary clinic, Jeffrey Rawlings has decided to take a break from graduate studies and instead pulls nightshift at the animal hospital while studying the modern philosophers - "from Kierkegaard to Marx" - to no avail: wounded animals hound his existence. Jeffrey’s hypochondriac mother may be dying of ovarian cancer, his money-hungry sister needs bucks for her 40-year-old husband’s braces, and a heroin-hooked runaway is set on his seduction. Meanwhile, the neighborhood transvestite swears he is Billie Holiday raised from the dead. But the worst comes when his perpetually indiscrete Uncle Raymond winds up getting shot. Soon enough, Jeffrey learns, it’s not just the animals that need a cure. Available in print and ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iBooks.
An Animal's Guide To Earthly Salvation Where do animal souls go when they die? Do animals even have souls? Kierkegaard suggests not," Jeffrey Rawlings notes. "Something to bear in mind while kissing your hound." An assistant at an urban veterinary clinic, Jeffrey Rawlings has decided to take a break from graduate studies and instead pulls nightshift at an animal hospital while studying the modern philosophers—"from Kierkegaard to Marx"—to no avail: wounded animals hound his existence. Jeffrey’s hypochondriac mother may be dying of ovarian cancer, his money-hungry sister needs bucks for her 40-year-old husband’s braces, and a heroinhooked runaway is set on his seduction. Meanwhile, the neighborhood transvestite swears he is Billie Holiday raised from the dead. But the worst comes when his perpetually indiscrete Uncle Raymond winds up getting shot. Soon enough, Jeffrey learns, it’s not just the animals that need a cure. In Print and eBook From Vagabondage Press Chapter One On the evening before I heard the news, I was worrying about the number of dead dogs in my cages. They were accumulating. If rigor mortis set in, we had to break their legs to get them out. When I first tried to break one, it was dreadful. I sort of leaned against the leg, hoping by sheer force to make it snap. When Vicki, the other vet assistant, caught me at it, she laughed. Vicki’s a waif, small and studious with a thin, pale, college-student face, burdened with large, pink-rimmed glasses, pale blue eyes and even paler blonde hair. “Jeff, what are you doing?” She had that concerned look librarians get when they feel a desperate need to intercede in your aimless wanderings through the stacks. “I can’t get him out. See? His legs are too stiff.” I pinched the toe of the dead Doberman and wiggled his leg to demonstrate. “See?” “Don’t be stupid. Use something heavy.” She picked up a fire extinguisher, and with her thin arms, slammed it into the dog’s leg. There was a shocking snap, and the leg caved in on itself. I thought I was going to be sick. She pushed up her pink-rimmed glasses thoughtfully. “That’s the way you have to do it.” On mornings after a bad night, I might have to make two or three runs. If the dogs were too heavy, they broke through the black garbage bags. I remember drivers roaring by me as I dragged lifeless bodies to the dumpster, twenty-eight yards away. Vehicles slowed, drivers stared, like they were watching one of the Godfather sequels, like I was out schlepping one of Corelone’s kills. One morning, while dragging out the dead, Vicki offered an interesting theory about what happened to the dogs we dumped off. “Their souls are released in large meadows,” she explained. “This meadow is like a heaven for dogs. They spend their time running, because that’s really what dogs want to do. Run — run, run, run. And bark.” “That’s beautiful, Vicki.” I was trying to imagine what Kierkegaard, who I had been reading of late, might think of a dog heaven. “You know,” I said, “Kierkegaard thinks that what separates us from the animals is our ability to imagine our future. I don’t think he’s given much consideration to a dog heaven.” “That’s just shows you how short-sighted he was. Animals have a spirit that we inherited.” “You think?” “Sure. The animal spirit is all about ‘me.’ Me. Me. Me. Me. You will never meet greater individualists than in the animal kingdom.” We took either end of a black garbage bag and heaved it into the dumpster. “But since animals don’t pre-plan so well, they haven’t gone crazy like we have,” she said. “I’m not sure if I follow.” “An animal kills something and eats it, right? Or kills something and eats a part of it and saves the rest for later, maybe. Or shares it. But very rarely, if ever, do you see animals harvesting other animals for their own food supply. We do that because we have such big brains, but the brains still only think like animals think. Me. Me. Me. “We have to evolve,” Vicki added, as the garbage bag made its thud. “We have to evolve our animal brain.” Vicki was an idealist. She dated a manic-depressive who once threatened to beat her up and take her to Kansas. Despite all of us talking to her, she refused to quit the guy. I remember one day, she spent an hour explaining all the drugs that were needed to calm her beau’s eccentricities. “But, he’s the sweetest man.” “Why do women insist on treating men like some kind of Gnostic event?” I asked, “Like there is a hidden truth beyond their obvious defects?” “You don’t know him the way I do.” But that wasn’t necessarily true — I’d seen him when he was manic. He’d come into the hospital one night, terrifying all the animals. It was three in the morning when he showed up, banging on the outside glass door. “Where’s Vicki? Where’s my Vicki?” I made the mistake of buzzing him in. He was through the door and past me in thirty seconds. A big man with jet-black hair, heavily furrowed brow and the look of an agitated sailor. “Hey you can’t. Mister — hey!” I followed him into the hospital, where the animals began setting up a howl. “Vicki? Where’s Vicki?” “She’s not here. Her shift doesn’t start until six.” The dogs began barking. In the ward, the cages are all metal and the floors are tiled. Everything echoes. You get used to the noise, but not easily. He began opening closet doors, medicine cabinets. Clang, clang, clang. That really set off the dogs. “Hey, you can’t just open that stuff up.” “Where is she?” “She’s not here!” “Why not?” “She doesn’t come in until six — you can’t be back here.” “She told me she was coming. She lied to me.” I gave up and went to wake Dr. Mieselman, who hobbled with me to the ward where Vicki’s beau was busy looking into each dog’s cage. Dr. Mieselman stood in the doorway to the ward and cleared his throat. “Ricky. This is no good. We’ll have to get a restraining order if you keep coming around.” His eyes searched the ward vacantly, looking for something he could recognize, call his own. “I don’t want to ring the police, but I will.” Something inside Ricky clicked. He strode toward Dr. Mieselman, who took one step to the left to let him pass, and then out. I made sure the door had locked behind him. I turned to Dr. Mieselman. “He’s been here before?” Dr. Mieselman nodded. “Not everything wounded ends up in a cage,” he said. “But, Jeff? Don’t ever let him in again.” When I mentioned it to Vicki the following morning, she told me she knew all about it. “Ricky forgets things, is all. I was at my mom’s, and he didn’t remember that I had told him. He worries so much.” “He freaked out.” “He’s just tense. It’s the pills.” “You know, in India they chain people like him to posts and keep them chained until the demons leave.” “Ricky doesn’t have demons. He’s manic-depressive. When he’s manic, he sometimes jumps to conclusions.” “Like that time he threatened to beat you?” Vicki has a way of looking inward when she’s irritated at a conversation. The look says simply: “I’d prefer not to talk about that.” “I think he might be a little dangerous,” I added. “Everyone can be dangerous,” she said. “Everyone. Ricky just happens to express what no one says.” I thought about that. I thought about how many times I had violent images involving a close family member or friend. When I was fourteen years old, I wanted to shoot Uncle Raymond. Not shoot to kill, exactly, but maim him so that he would consider the possibility of sudden violence from me before opening his mouth. That never happened, but as it turned out, my father ended up shooting Uncle Raymond. The reason, apparently, was my mother. This morning, I learned she was diagnosed with cancer. Vicki insists the real reason had nothing to do with my mother or her cancer. The real reason, she says, is the animal nature of our world. I received the phone call at nine that morning: “Jeffrey,” my sister said breathlessly, “Mother is sick.” “How sick?” “Jeffrey!” I was suspicious. Mother had once held the family hostage in a motel room for four days in Flagstaff, Arizona, having doctors check out symptoms she was certain were the onset of Black Plague or Ebola. Turns out, she was suffering the first signs of menopause. We never made the Grand Canyon that summer and drove back through the desert heat of Arizona with a stack of pastel postcards blasted by an artic air conditioner. Because of her hypochondria, Mother has never visited my apartment and refuses to travel to my neighborhood. She claims a fear of being shot, but I suspect it’s the possibility of confronting true grime. My father visited once, standing out on the porch while I brought him a beer, and eventually he determined that the environs were suitable until I became “serious about life.” By “serious,” he meant following he and Uncle Raymond into the rarefied field of managing their SUV dealership. This was another sticky issue with my folks — the Rawling’s SUV dealership. Over the summer, Dad tried me out as a salesperson. He and Uncle Ray drove me out to the dealership, pimped me out in a gangly blue suit and a red and white striped tie and then shoved me out onto the hot lot. “This is where you can make some real money.” “Okay, I’m all about real money,” I said. “Now,” said Uncle Ray, “watch Bill. He’ll show you how it’s done.” Bill Hochstetter was Uncle Ray’s top sales person. A handsome galoot, Bill dazzled customers with his shiny, white teeth, perfectly combed hair, and a flood of morbid statistics on small car accidents and fatalities. He was amazing. He actually scared customers into buying SUVs. Deeply cynical, he’d close a deal, hit the back room where all the sales guys kicked up their feet, chain-smoking and swearing about bad luck. He’d bark out some 82nd Airborne “Hoo Ah!” and swivel his hips in a rapid, screw ‘em pantomime, then roll his mouth in a donut O expression of orgasm. Uncle Ray loved Bill. They swigged single malt scotch in our basement and talked about busting a nut with one lady or another while my father smiled amiably, slightly embarrassed that such language was being used in front of his own four-year-old son, the kid, or “Jeffie,” as I was affectionately known. On the day Uncle Ray posted me on the SUV lot, I watched Bill close another sale, then stroll off for his victory cigarette and hip swivel. That’s when a couple seeking advice approached me. Mind you, I was still in training. “Do you work here?” Before I could answer, the woman interrupted without hesitation. “Well, we, my husband and I, just have a few questions.” “Great.” I tried to imitate Bill’s smile, felt deeply self-conscious about the length of my hair, the fit of my suit, my untrimmed beard, and the suspicious looking gold earring I harbored like a bad habit. “We’ve heard they’re much safer than small cars.” “I guess.” “You guess?” “So long as they don’t roll, they’re safer. For the people in the SUV, I mean. For the people in the other car, you know, they pretty much suck.” I laughed at my little joke. The woman was apparently humorless. Her husband kept looking at his shoes, loafers, going hum and um and nodding his head. “Well, they won’t roll if we drive it carefully, will they now?” “I read in Consumer Reports that they roll ten times easier than an average passenger automobile.” Then, I didn’t have to do this, but I added, “Also, between you and me, they get lousy gas mileage.” I’m not sure why I said that. I knew it would sabotage the sale. One of the golden rules for SUV sales, Bill Hochstetter had cautioned me, is never, ever mention gas mileage. It’s like talking about prenuptial agreements at a wedding ceremony. I couldn’t resist, though. Maybe I was thinking about Vicki’s animal spirit. Maybe I was thinking here is a splendid opportunity to evolve. I raised a finger for emphasis. “Another oil spill, or if OPEC gets their act together, and you could be paying $6.00 at the pump, and then how’s that 15 miles per gallon going to look?” “They only get 15 miles to the gallon?” “Yep,” I was on an evolutionary roll, “and I haven’t even mentioned what these things do to the environment.” The man glared. “Do you work here?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Uncle Ray approaching. “Actually, not really. I’m in training.” “Jesus Christ,” said the man, irritated. He looked at me with swollen eyes. I thought he might have a thyroid condition. “Jesus Christ! Does the manager here know what you say to people?” “Probably not,” I admitted. “So how’s it going, Jeffrey?” Uncle Ray approached, smacked his big hand on my shoulder, gave up the old Prince Charming. “You helping these fine folks out?” “Sure, thing, Uncle Ray.” “What can I do you for?” Uncle Ray slipped into his most shimmering smile, while I tried to back away. I don’t know what those folks said to him that day, but Dad and Uncle Ray made sure I never returned to the dealership. Occasionally, I’ll stop in and survey the rows of menacing bumpers lined up with their grim and steely smiles under the over-waxed hoods, row after row, under a huge American flag (“largest on the strip,” bragged Uncle Ray) and wonder what a life like Bill Hochstetter’s must be like. But not often. One other thing I never told those people, nor Dad or Uncle Ray, for that matter — three weeks previous, an SUV ran over my dog, General Grant; a sleeping driver at six a.m. I saw the driver wake suddenly and slam on his brakes, but he was going too fast, and the SUV was too heavy. Grant didn’t have a chance. Come to think of it, maybe Grant’s death was a precursor to Uncle Ray’s getting shot? A foreshadowing, if you will. At any rate, my failure at the SUV lot, Grant’s death, and a break up with my girlfriend, Gracie Wagner, had plunged me into a serious funk. Bad news after bad news, offset by the infrequent phone conversations with my sister. Like the most recent one about Mother: “2:30 this afternoon,” she said. “Noon is my bedtime, Caroline. That’s when I sleep.” I chewed at my bottom lip, staring at the digital clock on my dresser drawer. My work at the animal hospital is nightshift, a fact my family seems intent on forgetting. “Well, I’m sorry. But we all have to make our sacrifices.” This told me that Caroline’s plans for the day had been loused up too. She was no happier. “For Godsakes, Jeffrey,” she snapped, “it’s Mom.” I said sure, I’d be there, and hung up. Afterwards, I walked to Stuffy’s, a local sandwich shop, where I intended to order the largest Italian hoagie they had, complete with burning jalapeno chips and Dr. Brown’s cream soda. I was thinking that the more I ate, the less I’d think about Mother stuck in the perpetual motion of one of her medical complaints. When I walked out with my hoagie, one of the loiterers caught my eye. This was Clara, who more or less changed my life. Most of the time, I tried to avoid creatures like Clara. More precisely, I tried to avoid their stares, but she was sitting by the curb, rolling and unrolling what appeared to be an outlandish set of Dr. Seuss socks. That caught my notice. When she saw me watching, she asked if I could spare some loose change. I didn’t have any loose change. That didn’t bother her. She said she’d take bills. I only had a ten left. I pulled out the bill, looked at it, looked at her. I showed her the bill. “That’s all I have. Do you have change?” Clara had hazel eyes, and as she shook her head, I could see something shutting down in them, a little light, twinkling out. I know it’s absolute sentimental rubbish, but I just could not watch that little spark go out. In this way are some men made into fools. They will give away the bauble of a ten-dollar bill to see the bauble of light in a young girl’s eyes. It’s sad, but that’s the closest some of our species gets to love. So, I handed her the ten, an act Clara apparently viewed as a major sign of commitment. “Whoa,” she half-blurted, then checked herself. Sly kid. “Thank you,” she said, evenly. But she still grasped the bill in disbelief and sat there staring at me. “Sure thing.” I began to head down the sidewalk, hoagie in hand, thinking that was the end of it. She popped up beside me. I could feel her over there, to the right. She was keeping pace with me, stride for stride, exactly half a step behind me, as though not wanting to disturb my leisurely stroll. That summer, they had begun releasing mental patients from the state institutions and putting them up in half-way houses along our street. Many a night, I’d have to wait in line at the 7-Eleven to buy a quick cup of coffee for my evening walk, standing behind folks obviously down and out on some serious anti-psychotic drug, lithium, or say, Thorazine. Usually you could identify them by the drooling at the corner of their mouths. Sometimes, you could even ID them by the sores left over from the incessant drooling, or the buttoned coats — inevitably one button off, up or down. At a glance, save for the Dr. Seuss socks, Clara looked okay, but you never can tell. I stopped, turned to her. She froze mid-step, looked scared. “What is it?” I asked. “I don’t have anything else.” She blinked. “What’s your name?” “Jeff.” She put out her hand and smiled. “Jeff. My name is Clara.” I took her hand, shook it. Her hand felt sticky. I didn’t want to think about where it had been. I rubbed my hand on my jeans and kept walking. But that wasn’t the end of it. Clara wanted to know where I lived, if I lived alone. I had an inkling then of where the conversation was going, yet Clara was not unattractive. She had those beautiful green eyes and full sensuous lips, and, of course, dreadlocks. I put her age somewhere around sixteen or seventeen. I stopped at my front porch. “Okay, so this is it.” “You own it?” “Right.” I could see her eyes growing large, taking in the building. “I rent. And not the whole place. Just an apartment. A kitchen, a bedroom and foyer. I am a man of meager means.” “Can I come in?” “No.” I sat down on my front porch step and unpacked my hoagie, a beautiful masterpiece of a hoagie, spilling outward with a Cezanne palette of reds and yellows and greens. I took a bite, letting the sandwich roll its sweet pepper juices across my lips and chin and downward, spilling across my jeans and the steps. “Looks good.” “Wanna ‘ite?” I handed her the sandwich and she took a huge bite herself — at least as big as my bite. “‘hanks” “Um hum.” I chewed, gazing thoughtfully upward at the Sauer’s Seasoning chef sign that dominated our neighborhood, consciously ignoring Clara. I was still thinking about the meeting with Caroline and the family, how I might maneuver my way out of attending. Clara slid beside me on the porch step. “‘Ould you ‘ind if I ‘ook a ‘hower?” I swallowed. “What?” She swallowed. “Would you mind if I took a shower?” “Where? Here?” She nodded and reached for the sandwich, had it out of my hand and into her mouth before I knew what had happened. “‘Hanks.” I shoved the last bite into my mouth, but not before Clara snapped up my cream soda, popped it open, guzzled. She set the drink down and went for my chips. I grabbed her wrist. “The chips are off limits.” She sat there forlornly while I popped open the bag. I could feel her green eyes on me as I lifted the jalapeno chips to my mouth. I imagine a crueler man would have enjoyed it. I felt like a beast. “Okay, here.” I held out the bag and let Clara dig in. Uncle Ray always said I had no will. When I didn’t make the varsity football team, that’s what he called me, “No Will Jeffrey.” He had a knack for getting under my skin by being mostly right. I let Clara take a shower that morning. I let her shower because I have no will, and because I couldn’t think of what else to say. Of course I could have conceived of it as an evolutionary moment and not an example of utter weakness, which just goes to show you what a shallow thing our language is. I opened the door to my apartment and pointed the way, shaking my head. She stripped in front of me, smiling, then turned and walked to the bathroom, swinging long, sandy dreadlocks across her gorgeous, bare butt, naked as the day she was born. Dad rolled up to my place while Clara was showering in my apartment that morning. He rolled up in a GMC Yukon XL. I was sitting on the front porch step with Cleo, my python, sipping a Grolsch. Seeing Dad in an SUV surprised me, as he actually doesn’t like the things. Since he and Uncle had bought the dealership, he drove around in a sporty little Porsche that irked Uncle Ray to no end. I hopped off the porch and strolled down to the sidewalk where he was disengaging himself from the front seat, a fairly strenuous activity. “Watch your step,” I said. He looked down. It was still quite a distance. “Right.” “So you’re finally driving one?” He dropped to the sidewalk, nimble for sixty-five. “It’s a lease,” he said. “Ray says, as a vice president, I ought to be eating my own dog food.” “Good thing that doesn’t hold in my job.” I kicked the tires on the Yukon and whistled and so forth, going through all the right motions. “Smells just like a new ride.” “Yes. You know, they’ve actually bottled a scent for that. A new car odor. Comes in a brown bottle about the size of Vick’s Vaporub. If we decide a SUV doesn’t smell new enough, we can rub some of the scent into the upholstery. Works like a champ.” “What won’t they think of —” He picked up on my irony; there was just the slightest hint of offense. “It’s actually useful, Jeffrey.” “Sure.” I changed the subject. “Can I get you a beer? I have one more Grolsch.” He shook his head, looking concerned. “I’ve been meaning to stop by,” he sighed. I saw what was coming. “Caroline’s already called me.” “Oh.” He looked relieved. “Well.” And then the oddest thing, he stood there, as though about to say something and suddenly stopped, as though thinking better of it. “Dad?” “Well, I should be going.” “What is it?” He never had a chance to answer, because just then, Scott strolled up. Scott is a transvestite who sometimes works our corner when low on cash. He was coming in from an evening clubbing. Scott’s real gig, he claims, is to dress like Billie Holiday and sing. That morning, he was wearing a slinky, flowered dress with serious décolletage. I’m not sure how he did it, but from every angle, Scott showed cleavage. His hair was pulled back with a navy blue scarf, and even from a distance, I could make out his heavy eyeliner. He stopped right in front of us, impossible to ignore. “Hi Scott.” “Oh, hello!” He smiled so broadly I thought his cheeks would pop. I knew he wanted me to introduce him. “Scott, this is my father, Harold Rawlings. Dad, this is Scott Skippering.” Dad just stared. “Scott?” “You can call me Billie, if you’d like.” He extended his hand palm down, as the queen might extend her hand to one of her subjects. Dad just looked at it. Then he tried to shake the hand, which caused Scott to wiggle his butt and give a girlish laugh. “Billie is Scott’s stage name,” I explained. “He does impressions of Billie Holiday.” Scott shook his head, “Chil’, I am Billie Holiday.” “Right.” I nodded seriously. “Okay.” Dad forced a grin. His hand fell quickly, and I saw him take a couple of quick swipes along his khakis to wipe off any remaining residue of contact. Of course, Scott noticed. “It’s not contagious,” Scott said, smiling. “Oh, no.” I knew he was searching somewhere through his databanks for a way to make this conversation work. “So…that must take a long time.” Dad waggled his finger under his face. “The makeup?” “Oh, this?” Scott framed his jaw line with his hands, “You would not believe. It’s torture — but they love me.” “Keep the clients happy,” said Dad, promptly. “That’s very important. Well, I guess it’s time for me to get going.” He flashed a well-oiled smile. With some exertion, Dad ascended into his Yukon XL. Once in, he cranked up the SUV with a roar. “Jeff, I’ll see you this afternoon.” He nodded in Scott’s direction. “Good meeting you.” Scott let three fingers wave vigorously up and down, a single pinky poised as if testing the air. “Charmed,” he said. After Dad pulled off, Scott began to laugh. “Papa bear checking you out, child?” “Um.” “He’s a handsome man.” “Scott!” “Well, he is.” “Don’t even go there.” “A stud muffin, I would call him.” “I think I need to take Cleo inside now.” “You know, he looks unhappy, though. A little tense.” “Mom’s sick again.” “That woman is always sick.” “Don’t I know it.” I began collecting Cleo, who was sprawled out across three steps on the porch. “What’s his malfunction?” “Her.” I looked down at the bulge Scott was pointing at, about mid-way down Cleo’s belly. “That’s her dinner. She’ll be done in a day or so.” “Dinner?” “A rat,” I explained. “Whoa. Really?” That piqued his interest. “It takes a long time to digest,” I said. Scott smiled broadly and produced, for my benefit, a high and effeminate laugh — but he kept his distance. An El Dorado drove by, some kid hung out the window yelling, “Fucking queen!” Then, suddenly, Scott’s voice deepened: “I hate this town.” “So do I.” “You?” Scott slapped a hand to his shifting hip. “Why don’t you just leave, if you hate it?” “I can’t. I have work. The hospital. I have —” “You call that work? With what they pay you? You could make more money selling food stamps.” I laughed because that was something Scott did on occasion to make a little extra cash, too. “I ain’t buying it,” he said. “I know about you. I’ve seen your family coming roaring around here in their funky foreign cars, that thing your daddy was driving. What was that thing, anyhow? Keep the engines going, baby. Nuh uh, if you were hating it, you’d been long gone. Find yourself a sweet, old, sleepy job somewhere in the suburbs. Nah, you’re slummin’ baby. For the time. Checking us freaks out, ‘cause it’s something you hope is more real than the bullshit you come from. But it’s not. There’s just this. Where you come from, you can take or leave this street. Where I come from, baby, this is it; this is where I live and die.” I rubbed Cleo along his back. “You should go into preaching.” “Damned right. Now tell me I am wrong.” Scott smiled. “Nah.” “Go ahead, go ahead. Say, ‘Scott, you are full of it.’” “I guess I could move in with Mom and Dad, and we could sit around and talk about the Masters. I’d die of boredom in a day.” “I am right, see?” “You are right.” Scott shook his hips and strolled with maximum swing to the end of the street. Part of the truth is that Scott is right. Being in this neighborhood is an escape, I think. A refuge. Scott says I could get out if I liked, but that’s not the point. Why would I want to get out? People come here to lose themselves, to reinvent themselves. I came here to imagine myself — what I’m supposed to be. When I first met Scott, I was doing the same thing, sitting on the front porch, watching the chef sign for the Sauer’s Seasoning Company that scents up the neighborhood for seven or eight city blocks around. The factory gives off the scent of nutmeg — a rich, nostalgic scent that has been known to make me cry during the holidays. Another sign rises to the east of us, promising home mortgage loans with NO CLOSING COSTS! One last sign promises, simply, WAFFLE HOUSE. The first time I met him, Scott sauntered up and tried to convince me he was a girl. It almost worked. I offered him a beer and we talked for a few hours about the city. The whole time I was thinking, she’s attractive, maybe I should ask her in. When I worked up the nerve to ask, he looked at me coyly and said, “Not tonight. I’m having too good a time to spoil it now.” I was insulted until Eric Henley, the fellow in room 260, let me in on the secret. Afterwards, I watched Scott with amazement and also, in a weird way, watched myself, wondering how I had ever been fooled. Had I wanted to be? Was I secretly gay? Or just lonely? I rubbed Cleo, buried my face in her belly, near the rat bulge. “What do you think, Cleo? What’s the word?” She didn’t answer, but that didn’t matter — it was good having her there, philosophically silent through all my questions. When Clara was finished showering, she began yelling in my bedroom. I walked in to see her standing in the middle of the room, naked and wet. “What?” “Thank you,” she said. I tried to peel my eyes away from her, but it wouldn’t work. With her ragged jeans and halter top and ludicrous Dr. Seuss socks, she was just a kid. Like a kid sister. Now suddenly, standing naked in my bedroom, water running in rivulets across her bare skin, she was a woman. “What is that?” She pointed at Cleo. “My python.” I tried a smile that didn’t quite fit the circumstance. I slipped Cleo back into her terrarium, hardly moving my eyes from Clara’s body. She walked across the room, oblivious, and began digging through her Indian knapsack. I watched her squatting there, digging through her things, until she finally stood and demanded, “Do you have a comb I could use?” I did. I think I must have nodded. I tried to stand, but halted half way up, realizing I had to rearrange myself. “What’s the matter?” “It’s nothing.” “Have you got a hard on?” “Boy, you just like, um...” She smiled. It was a voluptuous smile that said “I know what you want.” She walked over, put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back on the bed. She drew her face closer to mine, and I studied it for a fraction of a second before we kissed. Her lips tasted of jalapeno chips and cream soda. “You have no right to be so beautiful.” “Sure.” “I mean, you don’t do anything to deserve it, really, do you?” “No.” I kissed her one more time. “You want me?” she asked. It was a serious but not overlydramatic question. “I don’t know you.” “I don’t know you, either. Does that make any difference?” “Well, as a technical, biological matter, no. But I’d like to …” “I want you.” I’ve never actually been confronted with such direct desire — and despite whatever her other motivations might be, it seemed clear that she really did want me. Me. As a man. I have a very difficult time putting off direct lust so plainly spoken. Life is short. The animal spirit is strong. “Okay.” “Kiss me again.” I did. “You taste funny.” “It’s beer.” “In the morning?” “Well, actually, it’s my evening. This is my time to howl.” She rearranged herself against me. “How does that feel?” “Good.” “Would you mind if I stayed here for a little while longer?” “What?” “I mean, just for a day or two.” “I just met you.” She whimpered, pressed her hip into my groin. “Ah, Clara.” I wiped my face. It was getting hot. “I…you know, I’m just not —” I sighed, staring up at the ceiling. I sensed the edge of the sleep bug, which actually made me more randy. It’s weird how utter exhaustion does that. Close to 12:30, which meant if I crashed, I’d at least have a few hours before Caroline would stop by. “I mean just for tonight,” she said. “Don’t you have somewhere to be? I have to visit my family, then I have to go to work. So that means, like, at 2:30 or so, I have to leave.” “You’ll let me stay here alone, won’t you?” “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” “Why are men such creeps?” She rolled off me. It was a sad moment. “Clara. It’s not being a creep. I really have to make this visit, then I have to go to work. I barely know you.” “What more do you want to know? Ask me a question.” “Okay. Here’s a question. Where’s your place?” “It’s close to here.” “Then you can go there.” “I can’t. I’m having problems with some people there.” “Some people?” “A guy.” The excitement flowed right out of my body, right through the bottom of my feet and out the first floor window. “Uh huh.” I said, as though deliberating. I lay there staring at the ceiling. “No.” I said, “No, I’m not getting involved in this.” “You’re just going to throw me out? Is that what you’re going to do?” I hate my life. I stared at the ceiling. I didn’t answer her, and she didn’t press. She leaned her head against my shoulder, and soon enough, we were both asleep. About The Author Jack R. Johnson currently lives with his wife and daughter in Richmond, Virginia. His short stories have appeared in U.S. and foreign literary magazines and his novel, Arges, was top listed in the Fish First Novelists literary contest out of Ireland. He produces a local radio module called Hidden Histories which can be streamed at WRIR.org or can be heard via local airwaves every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. on 97.3 FM in Richmond, Virginia. In Print and eBook From Vagabondage Press