Shoot Like You’re Awesome

Shoot Like You’re Awesome

(a version of this story was originally published by P.Q. Leer)

a short story by James David Patrick

“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have a bellboy,” the concierge said.

Westinghouse demanded that his bags be sent to his room. “My hands are my life,” he said. “They could cramp. The muscles could tear. I could be left with a claw! You’ve never seen a national champion with a distorted grotesquery like a claw, have you?” Westinghouse asked.

The concierge, who was really just an Art History major with a pregnant girlfriend named Kimmie, shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’ve never seen a dude with a claw. Let alone a rock, paper, scissors champion with a claw.” But he couldn’t leave the desk, he said, being the only one on duty. “At a bar in Philly, I did see a guy with a club foot, however.”

“First. The bag is heavy,” Westinghouse said. “It contains my clothes for an entire three month roadtrip and my best suit, my only suit, for when I’m the guest of honor at the Champion’s Dinner. And second. I think I speak for everyone when I say we prefer the term Rochambeau.”

The Art History major looked at the bag. “Hmm.” He pointed. “Use the shoulder strap there.”

Westinghouse laughed at his own oversight. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just so focused. I’m just so focused I can’t function. You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.” The Art History major didn’t wonder but Westinghouse told him anyway. “Every day I tell myself to ‘Shoot like you’re awesome,’ until I believe it,” he said.

The Art History major asked for a demonstration.

Westinghouse placed his bag on the floor and closed his eyes. With his fist pressed into his palm he repeated “Shoot like you’re awesome” until he believed it. Once he believed it, he opened his eyes to find a white-haired woman with nearly-transparent skin now sitting behind the desk. She flipped through a Redbook Magazine and looked like a blue-haired Valerie Bertinelli.

“Carl left,” she said.

“Wow,” Westinghouse said, “I’m just so focused, I didn’t notice.”

She flipped the page.

“You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.”

Blue-hair Valerie looked up from her Redbook. The corners of her mouth rose, but nobody could have called it a smile. “Honey,” she said, “I’ve been listening to that crap for nearly an hour. I think I got the picture. I even tried it myself for awhile.”

“How’d that go?”

“Well,” she said, “when I opened my eyes, I was still here, listening to you.”

(more…)

Teeter

(originally published by Bartleby Snopes)

a short story by James David Patrick

Teeter Totter

When the snow melted in February, a teeter-totter appeared where there had previously been nothing but a pile of vines, pried from the rosebushes and left there through the change of seasons. I’d willed it to appear, having closed my eyes so tight my stomach clenched up like when Peter Dumbrowski threatened to punch me in the nose during recess. I asked my mom how this could have happened. She said she didn’t really know and that I should ask my dad. My dad, who was clearly much smarter than my mom because he had an answer for everything, said it was because things have a way of showing up when you need them the most. I disagreed because last Sunday I really needed the Vikings to beat the Packers and they just embarrassed themselves. My sister and I went up, we went down, but after the immediate thrill the teeter-totter lost its appeal. Not because the teeter (or is it the totter?) wasn’t inherently fun, but because this was during Alexis’s “heavy” phase. I was up far more often than I was down. We forgot that initial joy of discovery. Weeds grew tall around its sturdy base without our feet (especially Alexis’s) to trample them. Then one day in August the Totter was just gone. Perhaps I’d willed it away by forgetting about it, just as I’d willed it into existence. I asked my mom what had happened to the teeter-totter, and she said she couldn’t really say. I asked if Alexis ate the teeter-totter having mistaken it for a tater tot in a fit of summer lunchroom-tot-withdrawal. Dad laughed as he read the paper. Mom told me the conversation had ended.

I started to fear that the teeter-totter had never happened at all; after the disappearance no one spoke of it. I couldn’t know for sure until I needed something the most again. Months passed. I’d wanted a lot. A new baseball glove and a trampoline, for example, but I couldn’t say I’d needed them the most. I rode the pine on my Little League team and the trampoline was only a necessity because I wanted to impress a girl named Cathy who ignored me. A trampoline would change that.

By next winter, Alexis had lost the weight. She kept on losing weight until she felt sick, all the time. And she turned orange from using so much fake tanner. I told her that she needed a burger and to cut it out with the tanner, but she insisted otherwise. She said I’d understand when I grew up. She was only six years older than me so I couldn’t have needed all that much growing up. With dad away on business again, I felt I needed to take matters into my own hands. When I went to bed that night I closed my eyes and wanted so badly for her to eat, not to want a juicy burger for dinner tomorrow. One of those half-pound Canadian Angus burgers we got when we drove to Winnipeg on holiday with the melted cheese and grilled onions and sometimes the mayonnaise, but I didn’t want to push it because mayo spoils if it’s left out too long. I knew nobody could resist one of those burgers. The next day, mom called me down the stairs, I thought to dinner, but the table was bare. I heard Alexis puking in the bathroom. Mom stood outside the door, pointing to the table. She asked if I’d done that. I noted the half-pound burger on the table, minus one bite, and then nodded. A smile crept across my face. Mom sent me back to my room and told me to take the burger with me. She’d been crying. Of course I took the burger; you couldn’t resist the Winnipeg burger. Dad took half before I could make it up the stairs. One bite. I didn’t even know he’d come home. He must have come when he heard about the burger. I checked for mayo. No danger of spoilage.

 

I visited Alexis in the hospital. Mom said she’d been feeling better and wanted to see me. She asked about school. She asked if that Peter kid was still picking on me at recess and if I’d talked to Cathy yet. Last week I’d willed Peter into another school district and the next day Miss Stapleton said he’d moved to North Dakota. If anyone deserved a Dakota it was that prick. Not so much progress with Cathy. Alexis asked if I was taking care of mom. I didn’t understand how I’d be the one taking care of mom so I just said yes, of course. Alexis didn’t really sound like herself but before she came here you’d have needed a Geiger counter to get a good reading on her moods.

A nurse appeared and replaced the tube in Alexis’s arm with another one. After the nurse left I pulled Alexis’s bottle of fake tanning lotion from my pocket, placed it in the bedside drawer next to a bible and closed the drawer. Contrabrand. Without her lotion she’d gotten so pale, if less orange. Apropos of nothing I said that dad had been working a lot and hadn’t been home much. She asked where I’d learned the term “apropos.” I shrugged. Then she got angry. She said dad’s gone. Then she repeated it. I reminded her that dad came to visit her in the hospital the same day that he took me to the zoo. That’s different, she said. I didn’t see how. I explained that I’d closed my eyes and wished to see the penguins. The next day dad took me to see the penguins. She sat forward in bed and said, he left and he’s not coming back. Not like you need. You don’t understand anything, she said. A nurse suggested I should meet my mom in the waiting room. I agreed.

I’d begun to notice that nobody talked about dad always being on business anymore. No more talk about trips to Madison or Calgary or Eugene, which I’d just realized was a place and not our Uncle Gene in Michigan that bred Brittany spaniels. When Alexis came home from the hospital she wasn’t allowed to shut her door. I took this opportunity to bother her more than usual, asking to borrow this or that, usually CDs or sparkly writing utensils. She said yes to everything I asked, which took most of the fun out of it. She just kept saying yes, except the time she grabbed my hand and said “I didn’t think I would but I really miss dad.” If it meant getting my old sister back, the one that would bounce me out of the room, throw her magic 8-ball at me to keep me from reading her diary, I needed to try something. Later that night, I thought and thought about how I needed to will my dad back home. The next morning a man named Will appeared in the kitchen and asked me to call him dad. He made blueberry waffles and served them to each of us on the nice plates, the ones we weren’t allowed to use. He kissed my mom on the cheek. I guess something got scrambled in the communications.

October brought our first snowfall of the year. Late November blanketed the North Country. This meant tunnel season had begun. Alexis didn’t join me as she always had. She still kept her door open, except at night, when it was only open a crack. She rarely came out. I spent more time with the Feuchtwanger twins across the street, but their mom wouldn’t let them tunnel because they’d probably catch a bug. The way she accused them of bringing these things into their home you’d expect them to catch raccoons rather than pneumonia. I grew bored with the Feuchtwangers and the empty tunnels. I grew bored with Will. He’d moved in permanently and made us blueberry waffles every Sunday. Mom was happier. She kept telling us that since she was finally happy we should be happy too. I wasn’t so sure since I’d just started doing the reflexive property in math class and that just didn’t fit, but then again, Miss Emerson kept telling us that this was advanced math and we shouldn’t get too upset if we didn’t get it yet. We still saw dad once in a while, but he wasn’t himself. He’d stopped shaving and he moved out to Little Falls where he said rent was “more economical.” I begged him to come home because things just weren’t the same. Alexis never said anything when we saw him so I did the talking for both of us. I told him that we needed him at home the most we’d ever needed him. Will was fine, but he needed to learn how to make something else besides blueberry waffles.  I asked dad if he remembered when he said that things have a way of appearing when you need them the most. He nodded. He said he might have been mistaken.

 

Alexis never left her room except to go to school or the bathroom. She’d put on weight again, but she wasn’t nearly as heavy as she had been last spring. Mom seemed to think everything was okay. I wasn’t okay. It was winter in Minnesota and without fellow tunnelers and snow fort constructors, there really wasn’t anything left to do except sit inside and play Nintendo but I was limited to only thirty minutes a day. Mom said it was bad for my eyes and Will did nothing to disagree with her. Dad would have bought me some more time because he knew more about that kind of stuff than mom. I’d gotten sent to my room for breaking a vase with a Nerf ball after I’d been told repeatedly not to play with the ball inside. I argued that no one had bothered to offer a reasonable alternative to not playing with the Nerf. Will called me a smartass. I could come out, my mom said, when she wasn’t mad at me anymore. That seemed arbitrary. I pulled the covers up over my head to block out the last of the daylight and closed my eyes. I closed my eyes so tight that I made my stomach ache and my eyes sore. It worked once so it would work again. I begged and begged no one in particular. I said “I will the teeter-totter into the backyard.” I said it over and over until I got so hot I had to pull the blankets down to breathe. Maybe, if the teeter-totter came back Alexis would come outside again and dad would come home. Maybe then everything could go back to normal.

Every so often I’d stick the shovel into the snow where the teeter-totter had been, just to see if I struck anything hard beneath the snow. I never did. But then again the snow was dense and there was a lot of it. Mom said we’d reached our seasonal average by the end of January. I couldn’t remember anymore if I wanted more snow or less. One morning I made the mistake of suggesting that I missed the teeter-totter. It just fell out. Will served me a waffle and said how those things were childish and kind of unsafe. He added bananas to waffles now. We had options. Mom nodded and said she was so happy to hear that he felt that way about the teeter-totter. Will kissed her on the cheek. Alexis pointed down her throat. I had to laugh. I wonder if Will also thought pancakes were dangerous and that’s why we never had any.

When the temperature reached the mid-thirties in late February I began watching out my window into the backyard. Sun reflected off the snow, melting the top layer each day so that it could freeze again at night. A layer of epoxy, like the finish dad put on Alexis’s craft table that now lay beneath a mountain of magazines, including the occasional Vogue that she’d smuggled in. We weren’t allowed to read those adult magazines because mom said we weren’t old enough to digest them. Alexis came in my room and sat down on my bed. She seemed so out of place.

The jagged icicles that had once blocked my backyard view had shrunk down to rounded nubs. Water dripped onto the windowsill in unpredictable patterns. Just when I thought I had a handle on the pattern everything would change. I told Alexis to watch, that I could stick my head out the window and catch the drops in my mouth. “You know dad bought you that teeter-totter,” she said. I shook my head. I said I willed it there because I wanted it so badly it hurt. I told her to wait. Wait and see because last year I didn’t want it nearly as much as I wanted it now. She said nothing. I made her promise that if it appeared she’d come outside and play with me, just as soon as the snow melted. I watched through the window. I waited and wanted. She said, “Sure,” and walked back into her room. I could tell she didn’t mean it. She didn’t believe. But I knew better. I knew that one morning, when the snow gave up its hold, the teeter-totter would appear, just as I said it would. I’d wake Alexis to tell her. She’d actually beat me down the stairs, through the kitchen and out the back door saying “No way, no way, no fucking way.” Mom and Will wouldn’t have made it downstairs yet because if they had they certainly would have told us not to go outside, there wasn’t enough time, you’ll just get your clothes muddy. Alexis and I would sit on opposite ends of the teeter-totter and I’d start on the high end, as I always did, waiting for Alexis to push up off the ground. In another moment I’d fall back down to earth and watch Alexis rise into the air, her waxen frown taken over by a smile. And even there, cemented in my dream, her smile looked so unnatural, so out of place, like I’d willed it there out of thin air.


BIO: James David Patrick has an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine and lives in Pittsburgh where he can often be found sifting through stacks of vinyl at Attic Records or begging his daughter for new story inspiration. He has previously published with Monkeybicycle, PANK and Spectre Literary Magazine; tweets at @30hertzrumble and blogs at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com.

Tag

Tag

(originally published by Thematic Literary Magazine)

a short story by James David Patrick (cover photo by andrew and hobbes)

“I’ll hide. You find me,” she said. Eyes veiled by Snow White bangs. Others had readied for the game and gathered around, but “you” had meant me. Her eyes had paused on me.

Courtney’s annual Halloween party. The night I’d ask her to go with me – to go steady perhaps, depending on your choice of juvenile idioms. Until then we’d done nothing more than pass notes during class, folded notebook paper containing checkboxes under the guise of platonic boy/girl friendship. Meet me at the kickball backstop during recess. Box for yes. Box for no. Katie would come too. So would Josh and probably Delmar, the kid with the buggy eyes, because he always went to the kickball backstop just in case a game ever broke out. And sometimes it did. If I’d ever have attempted a rendezvous for two, we’d have been teased about sitting in trees and pushing baby carriages, a tease so worn-over it’d lost its teeth even before the third grade. Still, I just couldn’t handle the drama. I still can’t.

The party had begun to wind down. Cookies had been served. Apples had been bobbed. Costumes unraveled. Many had been discarded altogether. An empty Ewok head flanked the orange punch. Unscripted games had begun to crop up organically here and there. Hide and seek, for example.

She ran off to hide. “One. Two. Five. Ten,” I counted, peeking through parted fingers to be the first to find her. She cut left around the outside of the house, her vinyl cape, a red flutter, frozen in time by the porch floodlight. A frame on a Viewfinder wheel. I accelerated my cadence and followed but found no one but Delmar, who’d stopped to grab rations before arriving at his final hiding spot. I pardoned him and let him continue on. I searched the tree house, behind the tool shed. I peeked inside the kitchen door.

I searched until my mom came to pick me up in that white Buick Riviera with the maroon interior. I begged her to let me stay. I suggested she grab a plastic cup and have some orange punch. Take a seat. Relax. I’ll be back in a just few. I detached the cardboard trailer from my homemade Optimus Prime costume to suggest how serious I’d been about finding Courtney before I left. She replied with her familiar brand of inarguable logic: You’ll see her on Monday. Outwitted, outmatched, I settled on explaining my departure to Courtney’s mom. She’d been a fixture on the front porch throughout the party, staring down the gravel driveway at the arriving cars, the fireflies, one of the town’s two traffic lights, blinking yellow just through a blind of trees.

“Tell Courtney I said goodbye,” I said.

She nodded, arms crossed at her chest. She wasn’t in costume like the rest of us. Not in the spirit. She frowned a little, not saying what was really on her mind. Maybe she’d seen through to my designs on her only daughter. Without a father around, I can see why she’d gone a little rough, a little Gulag over Courtney’s freedoms. In bed no later than 8:30. No TV after dinner. No phone calls after 5pm. We would have made it work had we ever gotten the chance. Even now, Courtney’s mom haunts that memory like Macbeth’s weird sisters.

 

Twenty years later, having just survived another breakup – divergent futures, existential crises, incompatible opinions on the oeuvre of Huey Lewis and the News – I entered a coffee shop on the South Side where I’d just rented a studio apartment over a tattoo parlor. When I first saw the girl standing, arms crossed, back arched like a cornered tabby, behind the glass counter of croissants and vegan granola bars, I immediately thought of Courtney’s mom at that Halloween party. Silently plotting, gears turning. My momentary pause gave way to hesitation and doubt, then a request for an Americano. The girl nodded, but she hadn’t looked up from the register, even after punching the button. Her hair, finely chopped bangs, espresso brown, black but not, shielded her eyes. Bangs were back in, just as they had been. When I traded three dollars for thirty seven cents, her fingertips brushed my palm. She looked up, a trained smile, thanks for coming, enjoy your day. But no recognition.

She paused, hand hovering just above mine. We studied each other. I’d studied those eyes during math lessons. I had no patience for numbers. It could have been no one else. Two seats to the left, one seat behind. Even now I could have identified her anywhere, anytime. Plaster skin, flushed cheeks and the pointed nose of a rogue softened by the filter of Teen Beat. Her expression remained unchanged. I’d lingered too long without speaking. The upturned corner of her mouth meant what? Embarrassment. Fear?

I interrupted the castrating silence. “Courtney?” I sounded wanting, maybe needy. I wanted to take it back. I wanted to say something clever like “Tag. You’re it,” but Courtney might have found my attachment to a single moment to be overwrought, if not a little childish, like a Best Picture of the 1960s. Another long moment passed. I dropped the change into the tip jar. I wished for nothing more than to hear her voice; I leapt into a series of unspoken prods and provocations. You taught me how to tightroll my jeans. I remember exactly. We were in the cafeteria. You were on my left. Katie on my right. I’m pretty sure that was my first erection when your fingers brushed my leg. Okay, my first except for that sleepover scene in the movie Big, but other than that scene with Elizabeth Perkins, my first one.

Still she said nothing. Someone else had entered the coffee shop. I paid them no attention though I certainly wouldn’t continue almost talking about erections among mixed company.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I need to help this customer.”

Worrisome was the blankness of her eyes. I shifted right, to make way for a balding man in a suit that fit a little snug in thighs. He ordered a large drip coffee and left without leaving a tip. Courtney and I were again alone.

“Of course I remember you,” she said. I exhaled. “I recognized you before you stepped through the door.” She focused on the espresso syrup falling from the machine like motor oil. With the espresso pulled, she topped off the paper cup with hot water from a spigot and placed it on the counter. Instead of a girl that disappeared from my life overnight, swept off to a new town, a new state forever, the one that got away, she played this like we’d just bumped into each other, friends of a friend on Facebook, aware of each other only by a 90-pixel avatar. Mine still the celebrity I most resemble – Neil Patrick Harris. Hers certainly would have been a casual photograph with friends overlooking Machu Picchu because that’s the girl I’d imagined she’d become.

“I wrote to you,” I said.

For the first time her eyes set upon my face rather than shifting from one task to the next. “Mom didn’t like you much. I guess because she thought you were the cutest one.” A confounding mixture of derision and flattery.

“So you never got them?”

She shook her head.

My first impulse was to question why she hadn’t contacted me. I hadn’t left. I’d remained right where she’d left me. How many letters had I written? I couldn’t even count. When Katie had come back with stories about Courtney’s new life or her new school friends, I’d written her off. I decided she’d never liked me, that I’d made it all up. I’d just been there and I’d been replaced by someone else that had been there, wherever there had been.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.

“What am I thinking?”

“Consider this.” A draining breath followed. “We were twelve years old when I left. Say you’re my first kiss. How does that change this moment? I’d still have left. At least now there’s no regrettable history. And next you’re going to ask why. Everyone always asks why. And in this instance, that ‘why’ would have hurt a lot more than it does right now. Now, we’re a clean slate. You’re just a guy that looks like someone I used to know and I’m just a girl that looks like someone you fancied.”

She looked down, eyes again hidden by a shell of black hair.

I felt compelled to read a laundry list of personal effects. “I have notes you wrote me in class. A few even have letters dotted with hearts, and not just the I’s. The jean jacket you gave me. Your brother’s old one with the Clash patch on the left shoulder. We won the three-legged race at one of my birthday parties. There’s an 8” x 10” at my parents’ house to prove it.”

These things,” she said, “they don’t matter anymore. They never really did. Denim and thread and fond memories. That’s all. And not that memories aren’t important, but…” Her voice trailed away into the hum of ambient electricity.

The stress on “these” forced me to pause. Clean slate, she’d said. I glanced at the coffee cup and considered pushing for more information. What were the things that mattered to her? Was she married? Divorced? Kids? Where had she hoped to be by this point in her life? How did she end up here, a dumpy coffee shop 500 miles away from anywhere we’d ever been together? But I said nothing further. The steam from the coffee rising through the vent on the lid brought me back to the moment in front of each of us. I felt the scar on my right cheek. A tic. A pond hockey game with a cousin in Toronto. I still couldn’t skate. I took medication for migraines and anti-depressants, but during the winter months. She wore a charm bracelet without pendants on her left wrist. She looked skinny, not quite unhealthy. Shadows pooled in shallow wells beneath her eyes. Twenty years ago we were brand new. Now? We weren’t strangers as she’d suggested; we were something else. Painful reminders of our own dissolved youth, the twenty years that had vanished, overnight, through the compression of time.

Did I want to know her disappointments? I couldn’t decide. Or did I want to find her exactly as she’d left me. I wanted to finally find Snow White. I understood that she wanted me to be anything but the boy in the Transformer costume. But right then, at that moment, I didn’t have the stomach to meet her half way. So I thanked her for the coffee. She said it had been nice to see me again. We were going through the motions now, reading the script. She said that we should get together sometime, in that way that someone does when they don’t want anyone’s feelings to get hurt if nobody ever gets together. A starter scene from one of my playwrighting workshops on subtext. To punctuate my exit I kicked over a chair. No one was sitting in it.

I stood outside, staring back at the front of the coffee shop. I watched Courtney pick up the chair just as I’d watched her house recede from my view just beyond the railroad tracks. At the time I’d been thinking about what I’d say to her on Monday. I liked your party. Sorry I had to leave. You should come over and play ping pong in my basement. It wasn’t until years later that the Halloween party turned into the missing piece of a more complicated puzzle. A thing that mattered, a trinket at the bottom of my childhood chest of drawers that ultimately amounted to less than the cup of coffee I held in my hand. Now even that memory failed me. It had been the last night I’d ever seen Courtney. Now that I’d found her the night meant nothing. I was just eleven. It was just a party where I got a little sick on some kind of orange punch. Now that I’d found her it was my turn to hide; but would she bother to peek through her fingers to cheat, to find out where I’d gone.