ALWAYS with me, it sure as shit was. An’ it was real, all right, just like the heap of sun-yellow’d curls that hung down o’er my shoulders like the head of Mama’s old mop. Real as them eyes that I always kept squinted in this kinda pissed-off glare and the “who gives a shit” smirk that refused to let go o’ my lips. All day, ev’ry day, the damned thing fucked with my head, stole away all my breath. Even made me kinda dizzy sometimes, it did. I s’posed it was my cross to bear, not that I’d shake it, even if I could. ’Cause if I was gonna talk real straight, it’d saved my sorry ass more’n once, make my life easier… a fuckin’ cakewalk, so t’speak. It told me what to go for and what to steer clear of like the friggin’ plague. But still, sometimes I wondered if strangers could see it as plain as I could feel it: the gapin’, festerin’ wound that laid claim to the spot where my heart was s’posed to be.
“Yo, Taylor, you left your name but you didn’t leave a phone number on your application. How the hell’d you expect me to get in touch with you without a goddamned phone number, dumbass?”
I turned back toward the restaurant to see Brian Deacon wavin’ one o’ his mile-long, gangly arms outta the Downtown Pub kitchen’s backdoor. My new employer’s shouts startled me outta my too-deep thinkin’. “Huh?”
“I said you didn’t write no phone number on your job application.” Deacon choked back more verbal crap so’s he could let loose a sneaky chuckle. “But if you’re staying with your old lady, I got that number. Ain’t too proud to admit I got my manly needs and your ma will take care of them with a smile… for the right price, that is. So you gonna crash at your ma’s place over in Wiltonville, or what?”
I felt my face go all red, but still I managed to shake my head a coupla times.
“Your ma is Sheila Taylor, right?”
“Yep, sir, that’d be her.” I wasn’t too far away to notice the way the older man’s eyes lit up, no doubt with lust. Soon he’d be droolin’. All of ’em did. Mama sure knew how to take care o’ business. My boss of no more’n five minutes had clearly heard about (or likelier had much more down an’ dirty knowledge of) dear, sweet Mama. That there achin’ hole in my chest hurled a wave o’ pain right into my brain. Ouch.
“Uh, I got me a room at the boardin’house on Main Street, sir.” My eyes fell upon the rows of faded roundish marks scattered all over the insides of my forearms like splattered drops o’ dull purple paint. Again I thought of Mama and yanked down them long sleeves of my once-white T-shirt. “They got us a shared phone that I can use in the kitchen. I’ll get you the number there, ’kay?”
“Do yourself a favor, Brett, my boy, and pick up a cell phone. How the hell do you expect to have yourself some good, old-fashioned phone sex when you got no privacy, huh?” Brian laughed heartily at his own joke, tossin’ his frizzy brown curls back behind his wide but real skinny shoulders. “Seriously, kid, get a cell phone. And I’ll see you tomorrow at noon. Take my advice and don’t be late; nothing pisses me off worse than a loser who can’t get his ass to work on time.”
I sent Brian a sorta sarcastic salute and turned toward the Downtown Pub’s wide back parkin’ lot, headin’ for a row of gangly pine trees that lined the farthest edge of the pavement. And I knew I was every bit as scraggly-lookin’ as them damned trees, but I’d still managed to do it.
Yup. I’d found life’s big red EASY button, and friggin’ pushed it with my middle finger. Now there’d be no more breakin’ my ass choppin’ white pine up there in them North Woods. That damned loggin’ gig had managed to scrap all civilized aspects of my life ever since I’d gone and quit high school last spring and signed on. So fuckin’ desperate for a job, I was. But a coupla minutes ago, Brett Taylor had managed to get his ass gainfully employed in the food services industry as a busboy and barback at a hole-in-the-wall college restaurant that had this super-lively little bar attached. Now I could just sit back all nice and easy-like and watch them college boys drink, all the while collectin’ myself a paycheck. Not too bad for a beggar like me, huh? I felt the perma-smirk harden on my lips ’cause I was pretty sure that the luxury of toilets that flushed was gonna be mine at long last. So’s I bid a not-so-fond farewell to them nasty outhouses I’d hadta get used to over the past year and headed off to the place that could very loosely be referred to as home.
It was too dang hot for mid-September, I decided as I sauntered across the steamin’ parkin’ lot toward the path that led to Home-Sweet-Boardin’house. But I could take my sweet fuckin’ time. Nope, I wasn’t in no hurry to get to nowhere. Nobody was expectin’ me—hadn’t been for the past eighteen years, give or take a coupla months.
To sum it all up into one shitty little package, at eighteen years old Brett Taylor was damaged. And not just a little rough ’round the edges, no sir. I was totally fucked-up. Prob’ly couldn’t be fixed, neither. And I didn’t give one single shit.
That bitch’d burned me, in more ways than one, far too many times for me to have even a speck of faith left in people. And I wore plenty o’ scars that reminded me every, single goddamned day that human bein’s, and much more the so-called fairer sex, was basically good for absolutely nothin’. Uh-huh. In my personal experience, females wasn’t nothin’ but friggin’ evil bein’s with smooth-shaved legs and lipstick.
“Cash, sex, and kickin’ my sorry ass.” I said them words out loud too: the words for the only three reasons that ladies had ever so much as turned their pretty heads in my direction for as far back as I could remember. “Well, all o’ you bitches, you can go and stuff your money where the sun don’t shine and keep your fuckin’ hands outta my pants and offa my no-good ass, thank you kindly.”
Now, not bein’ one for a shitload of drama, I mumbled an oath, but only loud enough for my own ears to hear. “I ain’t never gonna depend on nobody but me. Not ever again.” I spoke this vow right out loud too, knowin’ full well that if anyone overheard me—a shaggy-haired, pissed-off-lookin’ redneck, completely caught up in a conversation with himself—they’d think I was high. No, sir, I wasn’t jacked up on no drugs, but yeah, I still was what ya might call a little bit “offa my rocker.” So what if sayin’ them words out loud just made ’em seem more real to me? Whatcha gonna do about it?
“That’s right…. Got me no family—like I got a choice ’bout that—but there ain’t gonna be no bosom buddies for me, and sure as fuck no lovers. Need one o’ them like I need a friggin’ hole in the head.” Brett Taylor knew exactly where dependin’ on anybody but Brett Taylor got him, and he sure as shit didn’t like it there. Ya see, no heart meant no attachments, and that meant nobody could drag me under. I felt my lips stiffen in that ever-present smirk.
In order to get to the shortcut that led to Main Street, I had to pass by an overloaded dumpster in the back corner of the pub’s parkin’ lot. The stench of rottin’ days-old food, made even more gag-worthy by the fact that the whole pile of shit was weighed down by ten million moldy, rain-soaked boxes, rammed its way right up my nostrils.
Hell, I was gonna get pretty tight with this here dumpster in my “no experience necessary” position at the pub. And since I wasn’t born yesterday, I was well-aware that the glamorous duty of trash disposal always fell into the hands of the new guy on the job. As I lifted up the tangle of outta-control blond curls that the heat had stuck fast onto the back o’ my neck, I hadta smile at the quirk of fate; I wouldn’t be findin’ myself no deep and meanin’ful relationships with no babes, but things were about to get all hot an’ heavy with this here friggin’ garbage dumpster. Still better than the chainsaw, steel-toed boots scene up north, that was for dang sure. I reminded myself of the luxury of toilets that flushed. Yup, this here bar an’ restaurant job was gonna be one hell of a step up.
Suckin’ in a deep breath, I fell into a slow jog, muscles still screamin’ from my most recent adventures in tree removal. As I passed by the trash receptacle, a flicker of movement caught my eye. Was someone actually insida that there dumpster? Prob’ly a hungry, homeless person searchin’ for a bite to eat. Been there, done that… hopefully not goin’ back no time soon. Shit, bein’ starvin’ without no place to lay down yer head at night’d sure sucked.
A perverse curiosity, or if I was gonna call a spade a spade, a hankerin’ to take a look at the complete loser of a creature that ranked even lower on life’s food chain than I did, led me to glance over the side of the dumpster into the nasty-smellin’ metal box.
“Oh, hi. Well, this is humiliating.” A sheepish, yet somehow still proper-soundin’ voice rang out from pretty much dead center of the garbage.
My eyes focused on a boy—blue-eyed, brown-haired, sorta scrawny. Looked to be sortin’ through the trash wearin’ an expression that showed both hopefulness of what he might find and genuine fear of the same damned thing.
“What the hell’re you doin’ in there?” Last time I’d checked, little boys didn’t belong in no trash bins. Maybe locked in trunks of cars, I’d had me some firsthand experience with that shit, but definitely not in no trash bins.
“I’m doing my science project.” The retort was real short, like the kid wasn’t interested in hearin’ no shit about it.
“Lemme get this straight. You’re doin’ your science project on how food rots?” I kinda barked out, and then added, my voice chock-full of sarcasm, “A fuckin’ brilliant choice of topics, not that you asked me.”
“You got it all wrong, dude. See, I’ve got this idea; I’m making a display of the solar system. Gonna make the planets out of these old exercise balls I found outside the gym downtown, you know, for the Belton High School Freshman Class Science Fair.” The kid smiled like he’d discovered the cure for cancer or somethin’. “I have that part all figured out; I just need to find some wood to mount it on.”
So this wasn’t exactly no little boy I’d happened upon. This kid was a teenager, maybe just a coupla years younger’n me. And scrawny had been the wrong word to describe him. He was just one of them smallish sorts of guys. Not that I had spent much time analyzin’ the sizes and shapes of other dudes. Hell, I hadn’t even possessed the time, or the energy, or the wantin’, to size up the finer points of the opposite sex. Tryin’ to survive kinda got in the way of the datin’ scene.
But since I’d already brought up the subject of finer points, I had to admit that this kid had a damned pretty mug. Delicate, almost girlish, though I sure wouldn’t say that right to the kid’s face. And he had these light-blue eyes… yeah, them eyes was real fine. Despite the unknown, no doubt filthy crap that was smudged all over the kid’s forehead and chin, well, let’s put it this way: I found myself suckin’ in the sight of that pretty little face like the way a bone-dry sponge’d suck up a glass of spilt milk. My stomach clenched at the unwanted (not to mention fuckin’ puzzlin’) physical attraction that I was feelin’ for the boy in the dumpster. The sight of that there pretty face and slender body just hit me hard below the belt, so to speak.
’Nough said ’bout that shit.
Before I could stop myself, though, I found my arms reachin’ into the dumpster. “Let’s get you out of there—it’s filthy, and you’re gonna catch some rare fuckin’ disease.” I took a second to wonder why the hell I even cared.
The boy grabbed onto my hands, that there angel-like face now wearin’ an expression that landed on the scale somewhere between relief and thankfulness. Then the kid let go of one of my hands for a second to rub his little nose, spreadin’ that grimy shit to a whole new territory. “I just thought I’d take a look, but there’s nothing I can use for my project in that mess. And it really smells horrible.”
“Hate to tell ya, kid, but your smell ain’t gonna win no perfume-of-the-month prize, neither.” I released the boy’s sticky hands after depositin’ him brusquely on the scorchin’ pavement.
After a short moment durin’ which he adjusted his jeans back into place, the boy shrugged them slimmish shoulders and said in a soft, husky voice, “I’m Cory Butana… and usually I’m told that I smell pretty good.” He raised his strikin’ eyes to meet my own and then lifted his chin with what I would swear was a trace of attitude. And I had a funny feelin’ that I’d just got told to go to hell, in a real polite kinda way, mind you. “I live in the apartment upstairs of the pub with my dad. Usually nobody comes back here before dinnertime except for pub staff.”
I was surely not prepared for the way my head got all steamed up when this boy looked me straight in the eye. No, sir. In fact, that there kid’s stare burned like battery acid right on through the protective shell that I always wore around me and didn’t never leave home without. And through my steely armor of self-defense, I actually felt somethin’. Like a burn or a slap, or maybe just a good sharp poke right in that pain-in-the-ass hole in my chest. But I sure as shit felt somethin’ besides pissed off, which I wasn’t real used to.
“Just got myself hired at the pub,” I said, managin’ to find my voice, though I had to admit it came out kinda shaky-soundin’. “Name’s Brett Taylor.”
The two of us didn’t shake hands or nothin’, mostly for sanitary reasons. I watched as Cory carefully wiped off his face with a towel that he’d left on the ground for use after his dumpster-dive. This kid thought ahead.
“A new employee? Then I guess I should have expected you.” Cory sent forth a smirk to rival my own and then dropped the now nasty towel loosely around his neck. No clever response came to my lips, so’s I decided my best bet was to just shut the fuck up.
“Well, Brett, it was really nice to meet you and thanks for the, uh… the lift. I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot more of you since you’ll be working here and I live right upstairs.” Cory blinked as another thought entered his mind. “Oh, and get ready. You’ll meet my father soon.”
“He’s the head bartender at the pub. Roderick’s pretty hard to miss.”
My eyes followed along as the dude made his way to the steep outdoor staircase that led up to his apartment. Again, I gotta admit, I drank in the sight of that waif-like body, but now notin’ that the boy seemed worn thin, almost fragile, and so much older than a high school student should. Yeah, this kid didn’t have nobody to count on… a real loner, he was.
Takes one to know one, huh?
Halfway up them stairs, Cory stopped short and turned, chocolaty brown hair swishin’ around the sides of his face, and them serious brightish blue eyes focused once again back on me.
“What’re ya gonna use for wood for yer science project, huh?” I heard my traitorous voice askin’ the kid. Again, why’d I give a shit?
Cory shrugged in response and kept right on truckin’ up them stairs, takin’ ’em two at a time, and then he disappeared through the doorway. And I just stood there, gawkin’ at that apartment door, completely overwhelmed by the unexpected feelin’ of hollowness that had right then invaded that always-achin’ upper left side of my chest.