Brian Burmeister earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Feminist Wire, Thin Air Magazine, and The Furious Gazelle. He can be followed@bdburmeister.
SMASHING LIKE THAT
“This is wrong,” Erin says. “What you’re doing, it’s wrong. Terrible. No good.”
And the boy pulls back, frozen.
“All you’re doing is pressing,” she says, clapping her hands together so that only the balls meet. Her fingers stretched rigidly back so as to avoid the contact. Half an inch between the tips with each strike. “Can’t you see that?”
T.J. turns his head. He palms the blanket into each of his hands, smooth and soft, rolling and rolling the worn, old cotton. Rolling and rolling and--
“Pressing,” she says, again, smacking her hands together one final time.
The boy’s eyes blink rapidly. His hands continue moving over the blanket, petting, swimming, though they no longer feel it. He says, “I read it in a magazine.”
“And it’s wrong,” she says. “Like you’re smashing us together. All sloppy and weird. Awful. I don’t know how you can possibly think that that’s right. Not possibly. Who the hell would write such a thing? Tell me. Smashing like that.”
T.J.’s head rolls back to face hers; his eyes dance about neck and ears and hair. The long, pulled-back hair. The blanket remains in his hands. He grinds his front teeth slowly, loudly, then slicing them side-to-side till they hurt. The girl misses this. She runs a couple fingers over the tip of her right pinkie, up and down, as if holding a ring that won’t fit. “Mashing us up like potatoes,” she says.
T.J. looks to the foot of the bed. “It’s what I read.”
“God!” She clasps the fingers tight about her pinkie and slams both hands into her bronzed, exposed thigh before shaking them at him. “Listen to me. Please. Are you listening to me? I don’t care what you read, I don’t. Or saw or heard or anything.” She stabs an index finger into his chest, causing his head to cock back. Releasing a hand from the blanket, he adjusts the crotch of his pants. “Look at me, look. You’ll make out with girls,” she adds, “not magazines.”
He says, “Okay.”
She nods. “So we’ll try something different, better, yes? I need you to stay absolutely, positively still, got it? No joking at all, not around, not nothing.” She straightens her back and places her hands on her knees. “What I’m going to do, I’m going to move slowly and place my lips over yours, I am. That’s all I’m going to do. And I’m going to squeeze a little bit, like I’m biting with my lips. And then I’ll slowly slide off. Then repeat. And you’re not to do anything. I don’t want you to do anything; you’re learning. You need to pay attention. What I’m going to be doing is pretty much slow-mo of what you’ll have to learn to do. Okay? Okay. You do this right, Kayla Henderson won’t know what hit her.”
“Fuck,” says T.J.
“I’m being cereal,” she says. “So pay attention, please. You don’t know anything yet, not anything—and that’s the first thing you need to know. You got it?” she says. “That,” she continues, “and that girls are completely stupid when it comes to guys.” She nods in short, rapid, confirming bursts, her mouth hanging open about half-an-inch. “Now I only want to do this the once.”
T.J. closes his eyes.
The doorknob fails to turn.
Outside the room, Mrs. Kelly releases her hand and takes a breath. Slow. Deep. Then she holds off breathing altogether. A moment later, she knocks.
The woman twists her foot in repeating arcs across the floor, curling the toes in her shoes.
T.J. says, “Hello? Mom, are you out there?”
The arcs continue and after a time Mrs. Kelly says, “Dinners ready, you two.” Adding softly: “If you care.”
T.J. answers quickly, “We’ll be down in a minute.” And Mrs. Kelly remains standing. She remains silent.
So does everything else.
She wets her lips and snorts, begins walking down the hall. Behind her, Erin yells, “Thanks, Mom.” Mrs. Kelly pictures herself nodding, simply nodding, a continuous rhythm of empty thought, though the only real movement of her head is a flexing of the jaw muscles through her cheeks. She continues to the end of the hall, down the shadowed steps to the livingroom.
Mr. Kelly is, as he had been when she last passed him, lolled across the couch watching T.V. He is a large man with a bright mustache and dark eyes. He glances to his wife, the woman whose face he scratches each time his touches hers, and then back to the overpriced set. “How’s studying?” he asks.
Mrs. Kelly continues on her way to the kitchen.
“What,” says the teacher, “is the problem with conformity? Is there a problem with conformity? T.J.?”
The boy shifts his head to the side for a moment. Beyond the window, on the track, a class is running laps. Kayla is there. In tank top and shorts. Still the boy’s vision drifts about the entire group of girls of which she is a part. “I don’t know,” he says, and brings his attention back into the room. “I think it depends.”
“I guess it depends on if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Like, if we’re talking about everyone reading a book or”— he frenetically flails a hand through the air— “running five miles a night, then it’s good--peer pressure wouldn’t hurt anything, right? It’d make everyone better, I think, really. But if we’re talking about something like stealing or . . . or doing drugs, or something, then it’s bad, straight up, no question.”
The teacher’s eyes widen. “So, conformity can be both good or bad, not based upon the act of conforming itself, but based upon the behavior one is being conformed to: bad behaviors mean conformity is bad, good behaviors mean it’s good.”
“Okay, all right. Thank you, T.J. But—” she turns and begins stalking the room. “What if we have something less clear? What if what we have is a gray behavior? Do you know what I mean? A gray behavior. What then? Something that’s not good or bad. Something that’s just something--something you do. Like flying a kite.”
“But flying kites is B.A.”
“Yes!” The teacher snaps her fingers into a gun, pointing at the pony-tailed girl. T.J. turns and stares and smiles. “Okay, good, thank you,” the teacher says, moving her thumb quickly forward then back, recoiling, firing the imaginary shot. “Let’s stop there. I’m actually glad you said that, Erin. Who here thinks flying a kite is awesome? Really? I mean it, go ahead and raise them up. All right, and who doesn’t?” Her lips curl. “So we’ve got about half and half,” she says, and pauses a moment. “This is good, seriously. Really good.” Her hands flip open, palms up, fingers spread. “Now, who’s right?”
Mrs. Kelly nods. She passes the casserole to her left, to T.J. He eagerly takes it and scoops several steaming heaps onto his plate before setting the dish down on the empty end of the table. Mrs. Kelly watches this, then turns and holds her eyes on the girl.
“So, how much better are you doing in class?”
Erin looks up, hurriedly, repeatedly splitting her attention between her mother, brother, and food. “Better, anyway,” she says, then stops, swallows, clears her mouth. “I’m not totally for sure how much though. I haven’t seen my actual grade yet. Not since midterm. But the teacher stopped me one day to say she was pleased with my—I don’t know—God! what was it?--Newfound focus. And the one test we had, I passed.” She smiles, stirring her food into a collage. “So that’s something.”
The phone rings.
“Let me just get that.” Mrs. Kelly wipes her mouth before crossing the room and picking up the cordless. “Hello,” she says into the phone.
The girl and boy look at each other for some seconds, faces empty, before Erin scoots back her chair. As she stands up, T.J.’s head tilts to the right in question. “Girl business,” she says.
The bathroom is freezing. So much so that Erin doesn’t want to wash her hands at all, and ends up doing so without soap. When finished, she exits the room and yells, “Fuck!”
Mrs. Kelly stands before her, leaning, waiting against the opposite wall, the phone still in her hands, though no longer in use. Erin falls over herself back into the door. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. “I am. You scared me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to swear like that. I really didn’t. I didn’t think anyone—you just scared me.”
Mrs. Kelly waves off her daughter’s apology. “I have something,” she says, darting her eyes across the girl’s midsection. “There’s something I want to ask you?”
“Okay?” says Erin, stepping forward, back towards the kitchen.
“No, here, stop, please.” And, sighing, the girl agrees. “This is probably going to sound weird, but,” Mrs. Kelly stops and sucks her lips into her mouth momentarily, the girl watching on with hidden amusement, “I think that you’re better than T.J. and the things that he does. So. And I think that—I know that—it would be in your best interest if you didn’t hang around with him so much.” She says this quite slow, as if it’s a question. “I know this is probably weird.”
“I thought you’d be glad we’re finally friends.”
“I know. I am. I should be. But, there’s just--I didn’t want to mention it, but--we found some things. A bottle—pills—in his room. In a shoe box. And some other things. Worse things. He’s far too young. And maybe you knew, maybe you must have known. But, I don’t want him pulling you down.”
“I’m not exactly a weak person.”
“That’s not it—what I meant, that’s not what I’m saying—I know you’re not. I’m sorry if that’s—”
Erin steps forward, her mother cutting her path off.
“Why are you doing this, Mom?”
“Despite what you think or . . . whatever it is you think, I really like you a lot, I do.”
The girl cranes her neck forward, shaking just enough to draw notice.
Back in the kitchen, Mrs. Kelly attends to a boiling pot on the stove. T.J. tells her it was boiling over terribly, and that he turned the burner way down. “Sorry I didn’t have these done sooner,” she says, and drains the water off. “Could you grab me the milk and butter?”
Obliging, T.J. gets up from his chair. He doesn’t ask what the scream was about.
A short time later, when all is prepared, Mrs. Kelly carries the new dish to the table. “Potatoes?” she asks of Erin.
“No. Thank you.” And so the dish is handed to T.J..
“Anyway,” he says, scooping half-a-plate full, “getting back to the school thing, I just wanted to put in my two cents—or my cent-and-a-half—or whatever it’s really worth.” Erin looks up, eyes exploding. “I think it’s going really well,” he says. “I think this whole tutoring thing is phenomenal. Stupendous. Preternatural. Other big words.” His eyes swell as he smiles. “Her grades are going up like she said, and she’s talking more in class, for two. I mean, she’s really adding to discussion. Really. You should see her in action.”
Mrs. Kelly smiles to her son. “I’m glad to hear it.”
There is no one else. The parking lot is empty, and as the kids wander from the theater, only their car exists. Kayla Henderson and T.J., laughing, step into the front. The others: Erin, Tim Montana, and Dennis Canton, squeeze into the back. Tim’s arms drape all over Erin. T.J. asks what they should do next. No one says a thing.
So they go to Dennis’s.
Dennis Canton and T.J. have been friends since Cub Scouts. Once, when they were thirteen, Dennis told T.J. he was half in-love with Erin, which was okay; T.J. knew he meant it as a compliment. T.J. thinks Dennis Canton is the best person he has ever known.
But young Canton is pushing 300 pounds.
At Dennis’s, they hang in the basement. Kayla’s head rests on T.J.’s lap as he curls her hair behind her ears. Across the room, Erin lays soundless and still on another couch. Tim Montana rests on the floor before her, asleep or something like it, his head uncomfortably pressed against the worn armrest near her feet. T.J. looks at them, staring, dying with thoughts.
He wishes to be a ghost.
He pretends that he is across the room, that the hair his fingers curl is Erin’s, not Kayla’s. Not Kayla’s, not Kayla’s, no. He loses and loses himself in this. Closes his eyes. Wills himself to be a ghost until what he feels in his fingers is ponytail perfect.
T.J.’s eyes reopen. He watches and watches and strokes. Running through her hair with his fingers. Touching her hair with his fingers. Having a piece of her in his fingers.
But things are heating up in the room, and T.J. tunes in just as Dennis Canton speaks the only negative words he has ever heard from his mouth. Dennis Canton says, “I don’t have anything going for me.”
T.J. wishes he had caught the beginning of this.
“Good Lord, of course you do,” says Kayla. “You’re really nice, everybody thinks so. If Stephanie__”
“Just stop. Please. She knows me, she knows I’m nice. That’s all I’ve got. Being nice. And she knows I am. The rest of you guys, if you didn’t have each other, you could go anywhere and just meet people—do you know what I mean? Tim or Erin, or you two. I know you know what I mean. At school or somewhere. I can’t do that. All I’ve got is nice, so it takes time. I took time. She knows me,” he says. “Nice is crap.”
Kayla responds, “You can’t really believe that.”
“But I can. And I know you don’t see it, but this world’s a joke. You can say that it’s not, and you can keep saying what you’re saying, but you’re full of it. I’m sorry, and don’t hate me for what I’m about to say, but you don’t know anything about this. All right? I’m sorry. But you’re not me, none of you know what it’s like to be me.”
Kayla starts to sit up, her head relocating onto T.J.’s arm near his shoulder. “Dennis,” she says, “you’re just upset. There’ll be—”
“I’m not just upset. Everything’s ridiculous!”
“You are upset, and you need time.”
“You’re so full of it.”
Kayla savagely waves her arms about, shaking her head; it is if she has suddenly found herself in a downpour of bees. “I’m full of nothing!” she says. “You’re not even thinking! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Dennis rakes back his lower lip. It quivers fiercely under the pressure and, for a moment, T.J. thinks he might bite so hard as to draw blood. The darkness would stream down his face—and he’d keep biting—and more would pour, and would keep pouring, until the lip itself would tumble off. T.J. imagines the others sitting and gasping and discussing how this was even possible. Instead of figuring out how to help.
But Dennis doesn’t bite hard enough.
He simply lets the lip slingshot forward as a queer, awkward smile overtakes him. “What you have is all I’ve thought about every minute of every day. Can you grasp that? What you have—what all of you have means to me?” Dennis drops his eyes and his voice. He is always lowering his voice. “Until you dream of my life, don’t tell me what I know and don’t. None of you have ever had any trouble—and never will—when it comes to this. To getting someone to like you. So when I say it doesn’t matter—the things I do, like being a good person and—” He laughs, but he isn’t really laughing.
No one says or does anything. Kayla sits pale and still and silent; the bee storm has passed.
Dennis tugs hard against the front of his hair, raising a field of tiny, ivory bubbles of flesh towards his wrists. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t—I’m sorry, but there’s something going on. Beyond my control. I’m cursed or something,” he says.
Kayla drops forward, hunching over horribly. “Oh, puh-lease, all right. Just stop it! Just stop it. You are a great guy,” she says, crisply, “a great guy. Someday some girl will see that. She will. I’m not making anything up. I don’t want to be all cliché or whatever, but real beauty really does—it really is from within.”
Across the room, Erin bursts out laughing, her tongue dangling from her mouth. T.J. had been sure she was sleeping. Still smiling, she sits up into the others’ stares, leaving the ghost fingers empty. “No, it’s not,” she says.
Dennis says nothing. He holds his eyes just in front of his feet. But there will be nothing, no hope there.
Erin looks hard at her brother. “I need a ride home.”
“What?” he replies.
“Now! I need a ride home now!” she yells, kicking her date in the shoulder. “Tim!”
- - -
Erin steps out of the car. She and Tim walk, groping, playing, not saying good-bye. T.J. watches on. He rubs his index finger furiously at the underside of his nose. Erin and Tim kiss at some length, then embrace, then kiss again. T.J. no longer watches. He squeezes tight his eyes, his nose and upper cheeks hurting from the aberrant pressure. He imagines a place, dark and shallow and dank, where he and Erin sit, staring at what reflections exist in the raven waters before them. Here, words would be wrong. She nudges him softly and points to the faint outlines of shapes. Leafless trees hang low above them, casting the impression of snakes just below the waving surface. These serpents dance an adagio and, watching them intently, T.J. rolls his head back and sways to their rhythm. Erin laughs. They laugh. She sits up sharply, points to something else: an elegantly-moving diamond. And then comes a light from above, a star. Then another. And another. The darkness dissipates in dream-fashion along with the trees. T.J. turns to face her. She holds a string in her hands and nods to the sky. Behind the floating diamond, all is bright, gloriously speckled white. She hands over the string. He breathes in a huge but delicate breath.
Erin knocks her hand on the glass of the window.
“Move the fuck over,” she says before taking the wheel of the car.
“You’re a piece of work,” she says, minutes later, still driving. “You know that? I’m telling you so you know. So you can think about it. I thought you were his friend—you’re supposed to be. But you sat there like a piece of garbage. A piece of shit. A real piece of work.”
“I’m his best friend.”
“You’re no friend. Not when you should have stopped it. And you could have. You could have, you know that--you know you should have said something back there.”
The boy tugs hard on the ball of his ear.
“And don’t think I don’t know what the deal is. I do, I do—so don’t think that. Frickin’ Kayla has you screwed up, is what. Frickin’ made up hope. Garbage. You could have said something—why didn’t you? You could have stopped her lies, hope, everything. And all you had to do was speak up. That’s it! Nothing else! Not nothing.” Her head bobs back and forth, the muscles in her neck stretching until rope-taut. “You could have said something back there, but no. No! Can’t say a thing. Not in front of Kayla. Not you.”
The boy cranks up the radio.
“You ass hole!” she says, and turns the music off. T.J. reaches for it again, though she instantly, furiously slaps his hand away. “What’s your problem?”
“This is my car,” he says.
Erin shakes the wheel in her hands, unleashes a grunt through clenched teeth.
The boy says, “What was I supposed to do or say? That his life is garbage?”
And Erin screams, “Yes!”
They keep driving and driving, not even in their town now:
“So,” Erin pauses, nodding, half-staring at T.J., “are you going to see her again?”
T.J. sits with his head pressed firmly against the seat behind him, eyes closed.
“Are you?” she says. “Because first loves are stupid. Very. And I hope you saw that tonight. I don’t want you planning on seeing her, or thinking about seeing her, or anything. So you better damn well write down every word I say. I don’t want you thinking you like her when you don’t.”
T.J. quietly laughs, trembling. He says some things, weaker than whispers, but building to one, single, audible word. He says, “Slim.”
His eyes pop, but don’t move towards her. He repeats the word.
She shakes her head, licks her upper lip.
“You don’t even know,” he says. “You don’t have a clue.”
Erin’s mouth stretches Pacific-wide momentarily. “I’m asking. Nicely. If you plan to see her again.”
T.J. slams a fist against his door. “Where the hell were you when Tim called him Slim?”
“Jesus Christ,” she says, and focuses on his face. “Are you going to see her again, or what?”
And then it happens.
T.J. sees what she does not; he reaches over her, across her, and spins the wheel hard to the right. The car smashes into and over the curb, both wheels on the boy’s side planted on grass as the car slides to a stop.
There is a deleterious moment of silence.
“Are you all right?” he finally asks.
“Did you see what happened?” she gasps.
But T.J. is already out of the car.
He steps quickly around and behind the vehicle, building to a sprint. He slips in the wet grass and falls, pounding both knees square into the earth and spraining a wrist. But he doesn’t stop until he sees it.
His face doesn’t change, but he sighs. He forces a hard breath to exhaust what feels like cement filling in his lungs. He breathes again. Deep. Then again and again. It does nothing to lift the biting in his chest. Around him, all remains quiet except for the now perceptible hiss of electricity, flying through the lines and illuminating this mess. Up and down the street there is otherwise nothing but the darkness and quiet of night. T.J. waits for something to happen. There must be dozens of persons within an earshot of this scene. Must be, must be. But nothing does happen. No porch lights come on. No doors open. Not a soul shouting, “Jesus!”
On the ground before him is a woman, maybe forty. She lies on her stomach and does not move. Her eyes find T.J.’s feet as her mouth opens and closes, then opens again, but no words escape. T.J. shuts his eyes and returns to the car. Erin hides her face with her hand.
“How is she?” she asks.
T.J. takes his seat and stares forward, examining the lettering on the dash. His eyes focus then cloud, over and over, but he cannot change what is spelled. He wipes his hand over his mouth. He swings his door shut. It is very, very late.
“How the fuck is she?” she asks.
T.J. drifts his sights out the window. His fingers tense into painful claws inches away from his face; he bangs his head on the glass; he snorts a series of high, cutting breaths.
“What the hell can we do?” The girl sharply raises her hand to her own face, accidentally slapping herself, hard, before pulping the hell out of her lips. “I’m asking,” she says.
The car lurches forward.
T.J., alone, goes back.
He sees that the woman has managed to pull or push herself nearly out of the street and onto the curb. What streetlight there was earlier has disappeared, the product of malfunction, and what light now exists shines down solely from the moon. And yet blood reflects brilliantly. T.J. approaches slowly, slowly, and closer than he had before.
Despite the broken frame and loss of blood, life still remains in the woman. This T.J. knows. But he knows it is temporary. He knows it is painful. This, T.J. also knows.
And so there must be . . . Something, something . . .
He swings about himself. Everything blurs and blurs. And he keeps spinning. Something. A promise. And he knows he is right. He knows that it’s somewhere. He slows and steps backwards. His mouth reaches for words, but what he finds are jagged, incomplete thoughts. Soft drops of rain tickle his face and hands. He shakes them off and turns and breathes and walks further down the street, looking for houselights.
If he stays focused, yes, he will stay focused; if he looks confident, then he will look natural; yes, no one questions natural.
A block later and he finds a house with no lights and no car in the driveway. There is an engraved rock by the porch. It reads: THE VANDENBERGHE’S WELCOME. T.J. studies these words. He thinks and thinks and plays with them, tracing them over the roof of his mouth. Van-den-berghe’s. There is a delicious comfort in them. T.J. does not know these people. He sucks in breath after breath until he has pulled in enough air that he cannot tell his being is made up of anything else. He takes up the rock and runs with it as well as he can.
The girl throws newspaper at the boy. The pages spread in midair and settle to the ground like confetti. “There wasn’t a goddam thing in there!” she screams.
T.J. crouches, grabbing, attempting to place the paper back together. He says to her, “Quiet.”
She is all energy, shaking with it, pacing. “No! I went through different ones. Today—yesterday. Today. Nothing. Not nothing. Don’t you hear what I’m saying? Not one damn thing on it! Not in there. Not one!”
The boy extends a hand towards her. “Try to be quiet,” he says. “Please.” he says. “Sit.”
“No!” She continues marching back, back, forth, back, erratically. “What the hell can I think—can I think?—I don’t know what to think. Why isn’t there something? There should be something—there should have been something by now, right? Right? Talk to me. Right?”
T.J. stands up. “You think you know everything,” he says.
Erin winces, finally stops, smashes both her hands into fists. “We’re dead,” she says quickly, her breathing shortened to that of laughter or dogs.
T.J. tells her, “Don’t.”
He crosses the room to her. She turns and keeps moving. But this does not stop him. He places his arms around her from the back and spins her sharply so that her front is pressed into his; she nearly topples over, it happens so fast.
“Why did this happen?” she says.
“I don’t know.”
“People aren’t just out that time of night. People aren’t—” she says. “They aren’t. This stuff doesn’t just happen.”
“No, it doesn’t.” T.J. places a hand to the back of her head. His lips find their way to her forehead. Then a second time. Afterwards, she places her head just under his chin. He raises the angle of his neck to ensure his jaw doesn’t dig into her skull. They each take giant, shaking breaths.
Still holding her, he sways his torso back. She looks up. He moves decisively towards her mouth.
She shoves him in the chest.
“What are you doing?”
The boy’s eyes instantly glaze over. “Please.” And he moves towards her again.
“No! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” He wipes his mouth before throwing that hand into the air. “There’s nothing wrong, see? See? Nothing! So, please,” he says and stops. “You don’t know what I feel.”
“We’re dead!” she says. “That’s it. Everything.”
He challenges her gaze. He says, “I’m sorry, but you don’t have anything to worry about,” and steps towards her with certainty. “They’re never going to find her.”
Mrs. Kelly wakes from her nap. The voices, boy and girl, are strange and muffled and loud. Sounds, not words. And growing louder. Mrs. Kelly swings her feet onto the floor. She speaks to herself in short, mercurial bursts and proceeds to the hall.
“You’re so goddam stupid!” she hears.
The boy’s door bursts open. She hears the boy yell, “I did this for you!” But the girl, crying, storms past the woman.
Mrs. Kelly steps to the side as if her daughter has not already passed her, is not already going down the stairs. Mrs. Kelly’s jaw rolls forward as she stands and watches and hears Erin disappear. Mrs. Kelly takes a single step after her, raises an arm. T.J. shuts his door. A moment passes and Mrs. Kelly hears the front door open and slam and the quiet which follows. It is in the silence that her mind sets to work. She pictures Erin before her, beautiful and calm and patient, and says to her, sweetly, “What on earth is wrong with your brother now?”