Plain China

Consumed

by Scott Griffin · University of South Florida
Man Sleeping on Couch, Occupy Philadelphia, City Hall, PA, Joshua Hopkins · Temple University

Beau, who lives on my couch, attempts to step out of my car and into waves of heat dancing in the dirt parking lot in front of our duplex. Closer in size to a bear than a man, he has to fight to climb up and out of my mother’s old red Dodge Intrepid with the yellow racing stripe down the side. He shades his eyes from the summer sun and looks at me through the windshield with impatient eyebrows. We’re home early from the diner where we work. He gives up on me while I’m still rolling up the windows and sticking to the driver seat. He tramples the uncut grass and bursts through the brown front door in his humongous way. It slams into the hole in the wall made by similar entrances. He leaves it wide open.

My housemate and oldest friend Brittany leaves the front door unlocked regardless of my repetitive lectures on the singular but nonetheless pivotal use of a dead bolt and its one fatal flaw: it must be turned in order to work.

By the time I make it out of the hot car, through the bright and humid afternoon, and into the dark duplex, Beau’s already snoring on the couch. His capacity to fall into a deep sleep at will, anywhere, anytime, brings him pride. It’s my personal rule not to allow this or any of his similar feats to incite awe or jealousy in me. Brittany and I call them his “hobo traits.” I sit on the floor—we don’t have a table—and pull out the food I brought home from the diner. Brittany has left the TV on and muted, and I position myself in front of it as I unwrap my burger and pull out my fries. I’m wet and salty from the heat, shirt sticking to my back and hair clumped on my forehead; the unit’s tiny wall A/C hasn’t been able to compete with a Florida summer.

I take my first bite and I don’t think about the series of poor decisions and bad luck that led me to this duplex. I don’t think about how I dropped out of college or about the night I spent in jail sleeping on cold linoleum. I don’t think about my father, who told me he couldn’t stand the sight of me or the sound of my voice. Or about how, wild fire in my eyes, I packed and left and he didn’t stop me. I’m ignoring the taste of the cold, soggy burger in my mouth. I’m listening to Beau’s snores and watching as the chaotic flicker of lights from the silent TV lights up the walls.

The front door slams against the drywall again. An out-of-breath Brittany, glistening with musty perspiration, heaves a rotund black garbage bag inside. Not stopping to catch her breath or say a word, she props the door open with the bag, staggers over to me, picks up my burger, and takes a huge bite. Pock-marked face dripping, she hands the remaining sliver of burger back to me. She smells faintly of marijuana. It mixes with sweat, creating an odor that is profane and sour.

“I just dragged that…” she begins, but Beau’s snores increase in volume as she speaks. Raising her voice, she begins again: “I just dragged that damn bag all the way from Preggers’ house!” Struggling to be heard over Beau, every word is louder than the last.

Thunder rumbles outside and, like a bullet, a large orange-and-white blur shoots through the open front door and lands with its face buried in my box of limp fries. It’s the stray cat Beau lets in regularly. Brittany, contemptuous of the cat’s sense of entitlement for everything under our roof, freezes in anger. I feel resigned.

“Beau, get that damn cat out of here,” she bellows.

I look over at Beau, now sitting upright and awake. I wonder how long he’s been up as I finish the remaining fragment of burger, leaving the fries for the stray. When I see her, my mother often tells me that I look sickly and thin, my eyes hollow and dry. Like my soul has been consumed. The cat has no name.

Ignoring her demand, Beau asks simply, “What’s in the bag?”

Ignoring him, she speaks to me, “I scored an eighth from Preggers. She’s kinda wacko today. Hormones. Pregnancy’s the worst STD. I smoked out with her mom, though. She’s over cooking dinner for her. I’m gonna go back later and mooch some leftovers.” Preggers is her nickname for the pregnant pot dealer who lives down the street.

Ignoring Brittany, the fat stray runs to Beau, knocking over my drink, and jumps into his lap.

Pulling a thick stack of napkins from the paper bag, I vigorously rub the soda out of the carpet, leaving tiny snakes of paper as the cheap napkins disintegrate. Brittany grabs the unwieldy garbage bag and staggers toward my room. Beau and the stray settle into each other. The cat is large and clumsy and—if it ever wanted to—it couldn’t fit on any other lap but his. It never wants to.

“I’m putting this in your closet,” she says to me—stating rather than asking—from within my bedroom. I don’t bother replying. She’s eclipsed my will ever since we were kids.

 

Beau says he keeps his stray cat around because it’s his feline doppelganger. He loves it with the brotherhood one feels toward a kindred spirit. The cat keeps him around for the easy meals and warm place to sleep. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why Beau sticks with us.

“I’m getting my pipe and I’m packing us a bowl. This weed is some good shit,” Brittany calls, now from the bathroom. “By the way, Preggers was crying. She doesn’t want to see her skinny clothes again till after the pregnancy. So don’t let me forget they’re in your closet,” she tells me like a coward, speaking from the other side of a wall. Once, when she was throwing one of her tantrums, Brittany bashed a hole in the bathroom door with the wooden end of a plunger. If it had punched all the way through I could see her now. It’s been only three months and I’ve lived with her too long.

“Did you know,” I ask, “that Heather’s been cooking crack in our back yard while Beau and I are at work?”

“What? No! Of course not,” she says.

She is a habitual liar and I scold myself. I should have waited until she was in the room before asking. Out of necessity I’ve become a connoisseur of her visual cues.

“She’s your friend,” she says. Her tone tells me she knew about the drug operation.

“Heather’s not my friend any more. Not since she got out of jail. She’s changed. She’syour friend and your friend only,” I say.

Heather’s parents kick her out of the house sometimes for stealing, or for her drug habits, or for being a lesbian, and sometimes she comes to stay with us. I wonder if they’ve given up on her for those reasons or if she does those things because they’ve given up on her.

When I first met her, she had bright, laughing blue eyes and long hair in wild curls. Now her eyes are empty, the humor consumed, and she has a well-kept Mohawk. She shaves the sides of her head in our sink. Brittany prefers the new Heather.

I asked Brittany about the crack only to see if she knew; the drugs don’t concern me, because Heather isn’t coming back. The last time she stayed with us she said, in a drug-induced mania, that she would kill Beau with a shotgun. I said I’d kill her first. I vowed to run her Mohawk down with my old red Intrepid while she sold her crack in a black tank top and camo pants on a skateboard across the sweaty streets of Tampa. When I told Beau my intentions, he laughed and said I wouldn’t. I wondered if he was right. He said he wasn’t worth the jail time anyway. I dreamed about it the next night, hearing the sound of her bones crunch under my tires as her shotgun skated across a Wal-Mart parking lot at two in the morning; my subconscious mind was trying hard to convince me that I could.

Beau remains uncharacteristically silent during the argument between Brittany and me, cross-legged on the couch like Buddha, petting the massive orange tabby lying against his belly. Outside the open door, the blue sky darkens. Cold air from the open door—not the wall unit—slowly encroaches on the humid heat of the room.

Exhaling a cloud of smoke in my face, Brittany commands my attention and hands me the pipe. I inhale, hold the pungent earthy smoke deep within, and hand it back. Beau and the cat watch in disdain from the couch. Beau, an unusual stray, abstains from both drugs and sex. He is, however, proudly alcoholic and a fun drunk. Like a giant carnival teddy bear twice the size of the child holding it, he becomes happy, goofy, and cuddly. He knocks over to-go cups of day-old soda and trips over the couch as he dances with himself. He’s also smarter, wittier, and more profound the more alcohol he consumes.

I exhale and the world becomes brighter and more vibrant as the weed inhales me.

He tells me things when he’s drunk. He tells me stories of his adventures as he wandered from one corner of the country to the other.

He tells me about how he was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, almost a year ago now. He had sat in a chair with a rifle pointed at the door every night for days, protecting his belongings from looters—until one day when a massive tree uprooted from the marshy earth, narrowly missing his waterlogged steel-toed boots. After that, he left behind all the things he had thought too important to leave; he escaped—hungry, exhausted, and diminished.

He found himself at a bus station in Tallahassee, where I met him. He had only what he could carry. I had a two-bed dorm at the university with no roommate to fill the lonely bed. He lived with me the whole semester, but when I dropped out he moved on to California.

Thunder crashes and the windows shake.

Sometimes he liked to preach about the gnostic gospels and the power of love. He refers to his friend Steven as his mentor and tells me I’ll never meet him but won’t say why. When he talks about Steven, his sadness frightens me.

He calls me Scotty when he’s drunk.

When he came back to Florida and wound up at our door, he had terrifying stories about the bad crowd he’d hung with in California—all high school drop-outs in leather jackets with baseball bats. He said he barely escaped with his soul. He tells these stories like Jesus—like a Grand Teacher imparting wisdom to a lost and aloof soul.

“Scotty,” he said once, knocking over his beer with a wide sweep of an arm, “I’m ready for the zombie apocalypse. You really only need enough provisions for three years. In the sun, the dead flesh decays faster, and by then they can’t chase you anymore. I’d go to my mother’s farm. Oh, and I’m prepared to kill anyone they bite. Friends. Family.”

“Me?” I asked.

“I love you like a brother. Yes, I’d kill you. No guns, though. It calls the undead.” He hissed those last words and pushed his dark sunglasses, reflecting the crescent moon, further up his nose. “But if I don’t have enough cigarettes,” he said cheerfully, “all bets are off. I’ll probably just off myself.” He thought about that a moment. “I’d have a shotgun.”

“I thought you said no guns.”

“Not for the zombies.”

“Then why?”

“To off myself,” he said, exasperated, as if I hadn’t been paying attention. This confused me. Then he downed the rest of his half-spilled Corona.

I take another drag from the green-frosted glass pipe.

Sometimes he tells me that I don’t belong here, that he can see my future before me. He says I’ll be a scholar. He says I’m too brainy for this duplex with dishes molding in the sink, a Mountain Dew butter cake spawning maggots on top of the fridge, and a wall A/C unit that runs rivers of pink algae into the carpet; he says that I have too much passion, too much talent. He tells me with a sad little smile on his bigger-than-life face that he and Brittany, who shatters dishes against the porch when angry and buys cocaine from strangers as they walk down our street, are white trash and that this is where they belong. But that I—

I take another drag.

What am I? Where do I belong? Is it really here?

Somewhere someone farts.

Beau and Brittany hate each other with white-hot obsession.

 

Beau says he doesn’t usually stick around in one place for very long. Though he doesn’t tell anyone but me, late at night—after more than a few beers—Beau will say that he’s still here because I have no one else.

Recently, my parents threatened to call the cops on me for stealing money that my grandmother left me in her will. I think they thought I would buy drugs with it, though I told them the money went to pay rent. They’re scared for me, or of me; I’m not sure which. They make me think of Heather.

But Beau won’t give up on me. He won’t go anywhere until I—do what? He writes a fan-fiction novel late into the night when it’s just him and me, and Brittany’s asleep. I tell him how much more talented he is than me and how he should keep on writing. Whenever he offers me the word processor, I refuse, saying his Resident Evil novel is so much better than anything I could do and besides, what could I have to write about? He just sighs and says, “Look around you.”

I exhale smoke and for the first time notice the cacophony of the Florida afternoon summer rainstorm outside.

“Beau, get that damn cat out of here!” Brittany’s hellish voice reverberates through me.

“But it’s pouring outside.”

“It’s a fucking stray cat! It’ll live!”

The sudden argument scares away my thoughts. The drug clouds my brain and I lose sight of them completely.

What was I thinking about? I swear there was something important… a moral to some story that was playing out. I try to track it down. I was thinking about Beau…and his drinking…then—

“Come on!” Brittany is shouting, inches from my face. “Let’s go play in the rain!”

I discover myself standing and running after her out the door. The earth is flooding. It is biblical and magnificent. My feverish eyes see each individual raindrop; my body feels the coolness of every pinprick of water.

Drenched, I focus on Brittany and see her smiling, arms held out like a prophet of the present. Before my eyes she becomes one with the it that kept Jack Kerouac tossing and turning at night as he tried to catch some sleep in the back of a ’37 Ford rocketing across the country.

Her face is upturned and eyes clamped shut against the rain as pools of water collect in the corners. She is a seer, channeling the impossible magic of life ecstatically lived by the downtrodden, of the ecstasy of debauchery, of the freedom of being unloved and unwanted and unknown.

I am two inches tall and at the mercy of wrathful gods. I am a child’s little green army man drowning in a swiftly filling bathtub. An invisible hand has turned the knob; the showerhead is on somewhere impossibly high above and the drain is plugged. I am in awe. I wonder what has angered God into recanting his covenant with Noah.

My stare wanders back to the open door. Beau leans against the doorframe watching, a cigarette in his left hand. The wind tears the smoke away from its glowing tip, sending it jerking like a marionette before ripping it apart. A flask hangs open from his right hand and a fedora hides his eyes from my stupefied gaze. I can’t see the expression on his face, and I don’t want to. I know he is watching my shivering frame.

I find Brittany’s hand in mine as lightning illuminates her wide smile, chattering teeth, and squinting bloodshot eyes, inches in front of my face. She shouts over the tempest: “Come on!” Thunder cracks and I barely hear her.

I know we are running down the street only because I stumble. Like children we run, as if nameless, shapeless demons have given chase. I can’t help but glance over my shoulder, but through the sheets of rain all I see are the two-bedroom duplex with the door wide open, Beau taking a swig from his flask, and my illusive thoughts. It all retreats as we race farther away.

Adrenaline courses as I run, my legs pumping as hard as they can, the two of us hand-in-hand. She pulls me along with every ounce of power and effort she has, and we are thirteen again. We are the same kids who met six or seven years ago—she, a loner with braces; me, a college-prep nerd with a bowl-cut, both still awed by downpours and irony and subsistence and vitality.

We steal energy from the very wind and rain, arms flailing and mouths screaming, voices lost in the deafening gale, invisible terrors at my back as the tempest tears the shrieks from my throat. Through the sheets of relentless rain I see none of the grey concrete dwellings where the pregnant drug-dealer sells her weed or where the Mexican day-laborers—whose carpool van’s horn wakes me before sunrise every morning—try to sleep through the late afternoon summer storm. I can’t see the dirt road or the vacant lot. I can’t see our duplex or Beau. We are children fleeing demons on Halloween night. She tugs at my hand. We run, and the running consumes me.

About the Author

Scott Griffin · University of South Florida

Scott Griffin has finally graduated with a degree in creative writing from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he has lived his entire life. He hopes to get into an MFA program somewhere he can see the snow, if he can ever find the time. His essay first appeared in thread, USF’s literary journal.

About the Artist

Joshua Hopkins · Temple University

Joshua Hopkins, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, honed his craft in his high school darkroom. In college, his interest in the old masters of “straight photography” began to inform a new attraction to photographs made in miniature format. He now finds himself making pictures everywhere, regardless of the format or subject. Joshua’s photo was published in Temple’s literary journal, hyphen.