The Boiler

Jared Hegwood

TEMPE

The grass is cut 2 ¼ inches per neighborhood yard beautification standards and the scent of day-gone gasoline left from the lawn mower wafts into my nose. The shirt I’m wearing is damp with 2 am dew and ladybugs. An ant bed stands quiet but nervously close. Me and Jo lie on the ground smoking, admiring the stars.

The music from the house thumps in heavy and shifting beats. Red and blue light bulbs strung around the porch flash on our faces. The flash pattern was at first disconcerting, we kept thinking the police had come to raid the place, but it soon became comfortable, as if we’re at the outer rims of a carnival. We’re concealed from her husband and the rest of the guests, tucked away in the ferns, holding off in the deep left of the yard. Jo rolls a cigarette on her stomach. Her fingers deftly tighten the roll and she kisses one end, lights the other.

“It’s really hard to drink when you’re on your back,” she smiles, still looking up. The red and blue lights fill the lines in her face. “But smoking is better– why no one pops a beer after sex.” A bead of sweat sinks down the side of her nose and pauses at her left nostril.

I want to tell her that I think I love her; that I don’t want to leave tomorrow. “Prob’ly,” I agree.

“Are you drunk? You smell like it.”

“I’m fine,” I say. “Really. I’m just… God, I don’t know.” Jo makes me nervous and I always find myself apologizing for being curt. I imagine myself being Joe Cool with her, but men are dumb around women and myself dumber than most. Her age makes it worse; she’s so comfortable with me, like she’s got the upper hand in everything, even though, at 27, we’re only five years apart. I’m often at a loss; rarely have answers.

She reaches over and takes my hand, squeezing it. Her palm is sweaty and soft. Her nails are cut short, painted a grayish-purple and intricately decorated. I’m amazed with her ability with a toothpick and glitter, even if it looks trashy. “I love the summer,” she tells me and rings her fingers in the spaghetti-strings strapping her shoulder, towing the ribbed red shirt over her head. “I do this all the time. They’re all too stoned or drunk. They won’t say anything because they won’t remember anything.”

“David would– guarantee.”

“He’s already turned in your grades. You’ve already graduated.”

“I’m not worried about my grades, Jo.”

“He’s too busy smoking with Ernie or maybe Matthew, sitting around that spotty little plastic table, getting high talking about super-string theory or making Carl Sagan jokes that aren’t as much funny as they are mean. I was doing the wife stuff earlier, but I can’t be around them long,” she says and pulls at the vent of my shirt, unbuttoning the collar. ” They make me feel dumb and ignored. Let’s just enjoy this time, now.”

Large fern leaves, wet from condensation, hang over us, dropping mini-blind shadows on the ground and her chest, like we were in one of a Roger Moore Bond movies. In this light, with her curly black hair, she looks almost Polynesian. Her bare skin pinches mine when she rolls on top of me. Sometimes I wonder how they got together, how he married her when she has nothing to do with his world. Which then makes me wonder why I like her so much when the question is the same. I can’t help it, try not to think about it, so I guess he can’t either, which is just a whole goddamn problem. I push it away before a tiny bit of me asks myself how many times I’ve done that.

“You leave tomorrow.” Her hand finds its way to my face and she brushes at my forehead with her thumb. She closes her eyes and purses her lips tight, small dimples forming in her cheeks. She kisses around my face, soft and damp. “I want as much as I can get out of you.”

It’s fumbling, difficult maneuvering around in the bushes. Small, thick and spindly leaves bite into my back as I’m ground into the dirt. When she calls me “David” I start to laugh but stifle it by biting the inside of my cheek. It’s stupid and it hurts.

She rolls another cigarette as I retie my shoes. When she blinks it’s slow. Gray smoke belly dances off the end of her cigarette. I have to close my eyes to avoid the need to kiss her again. “Will you stay?” she asks. Some car doors slam in the distance. People are waving drunken good-byes, stumbling.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Then let’s go for a walk. Here, take my hand.”

“Okay.”

The streets are cold, mossy cobblestone in the surrounding area. Tall remodeled houses stand quiet under the blue night, some hide under sycamores and oaks. Some houses are lit like jack o’ lanterns. Jo pumps my hand while we walk. The moon moves fast behind the clouds, peeks through the quick gaps.

Jo walks barefoot, something I had cautioned her against before we left. In some places, the cobblestones are old and broken and sharp. I have to point out the bad places in the road for her. Her night vision is terrible and she’s left her glasses back at the house. “I don’t want your soft, pretty feet cut up.”

“I’m fine,” she says and licks her lips, uncapping a small bolt of chapstick. “I got a little redneck in me. My feet have some thick soles.” She brushes at my hair. “You don’t worry.”

But that’s all I can do once I see Miss Billie walking towards us, Miss Billie with the drawn-on eyebrows, wild-eyes and pink and green curlers, Miss Billie who’s David’s secretary, Miss Billie, in her teal taffeta robe, walking a leashed pig. I look at Jo, who’s smiling now, waving Miss Billie over. She stoops and pets the pig, “I love pigs,” she says. The pig comes up to one of my sneakers and sniffs.

“Hey,” says Miss Billie. “What ya’ll doing?”

“Running away with each other,” Jo says, not looking up. “I like your pig.”

“His name is Air Supply,” Miss Billie says. “Like the band.”

“Tonight’s the party for the grad students,” I say, stepping a few inches away from Jo. “It got hot in the house and really loud, so we thought it would be good for a walk.”

“At three am?” Miss Billie asks.

“We’re trying to sneak away so no one notices.” Jo starts grabbing at my hand and I swat at her attempts. “We’re gonna run away to Tempe, Arizona and start a new life. Gonna go west and propagate.”

Miss Billie reigns the pig in tight when he starts barking at something in the bushes. “Where’s Dr. Krakauer?” I can see that she’s wearing panty hose under her robe. Her white Keds look brand new. “He has an early flight.” She looks directly at me. “Early.”

“He’s tied up in the basement right now, Miss Billie. Gagged with a racquetball,” Jo laughs. “But don’t tell nobody. We’re trying to keep a low profile.”

“She’s joking,” I interrupt. “Seriously, Miss Billie.”

Suddenly, the pig breaks free of her grip and rockets through some hedges. He wedges his head under a nearby car, his tiny feet digging away at the asphalt, desperate to get to his quarry.

“Oh, shit!” squeals Miss Billie. “Ronnie will kill me if he gets dirty!”

Jo pats me on the shoulder, smiles. “You can go get him.”

I shoot Jo a look, but sigh and take a large step over the hedges. Thin and spindly branches poke at my crotch. “You could’ve gone around the other way,” Jo says. “Just walk around it.” But it’s too late and I’m already over, brushing at my lap.

“What was it under that car,” asks Miss Billie. “What scared poor Air Supply?”

She pets at the pig’s head in short and increasingly rough strokes. Its eyes are wild and it lets out a guttural squeal, surprising for something so small. Its tiny legs bicycle furiously but futilely.

“Un gato. A cat,” I reply. “It hissed at me.”

Jo throws her arm around me and squeezes. “I think we should name our first child Air Supply.”

Miss Billie hugs the pig tighter, uses one arm to scratch at her left calf. “Mrs. Krakauer, are you drunk?”

I start to walk away, tugging Jo with me. “Maybe just a little, Miss Billie. But nothing to worry about. I’d hate for Dr. Krakauer to be embarrassed by something like this.” I wave back at her. “I’m going to take Mrs. Krakauer home right now.”

“She’s never liked me,” Jo whispers in my ear.

But I don’t. We walk several blocks mostly in silence except where we stop to look at some of the old buildings and the bright murals on their walls. Under the street light, an old and fading Dizzy Gillespie blows his horn beside who I think is either Ella or a water-stained and moss-covered Rosemary Clooney.

Downtown is gorgeous at night. Most of the architecture is straight out of the thirties, the downtown area with tight streets flanked by tall buildings with hard-eyed eagles and Corinthian capitals hanging over us from a hundred feet high. The area is falling apart, dying in some places, while other lots are being refurbished, but unfortunately, not in the same streamlined style. Jo and I trace our hands along the lined brick walls.

The bar that we eventually fall into is called Chinese Checkers. Through the door is a long, narrow and near claustrophobic hallway, with a high ceiling and a heavy skin of graffiti. The doorman isn’t there to take our cover charge, just a barstool and table with a hat on it. Jo puts a few dollars in the hat. We walk hand in hand (something she insists on) and Jo leads us through the bottleneck until the space suddenly expands into a half room of wooden floor, jukebox, bar and– where a far wall should be– a wide expanse, a courtyard between hollowed-out buildings. The trees are decorated in strung Christmas lights and brightly colored ribbon. As we pass through the half-room, Jo leaves our order with the bartender.

We find a small wooden picnic-table under an umbrella next to a hanging piñata. After we sit we don’t talk much. Jo angles herself away from a blinking blue Coors neon. Crickets jump across the mottled stone path. A breeze swoops deep in the courtyard and rustles the umbrella over our heads.

The waitress, a pretty petite blond with a curly bob, wiggles up to the table. Her tray’s cluttered with napkins and limes. A lipstick smudge in the right corner of her lips smears outwards like from a kiss. She sets my Coke and three tequila shots down and with a snap of her wrist spins them across the table.

“Can I have this piñata,” asks Jo and points toward it, a purple and yellow donkey.

The waitress’ nametag says Jewel. “No,” says Jewel and walks off.

“She’s sort of pretty,” Jo says.

“I think maybe I’ve seen her in a math class.”

“You are so dumb sometimes,” Jo says and laughs. She stands on her chair and unties the piñata from its branch. “These are neat.”

I reach toward her, but it’s half-hearted. “Jo,” I say, “Stop, please.”

Jo plops back down in her chair, props her sooty soled feet on the table. “I think Tempe will be good for you. I went out there once. For tacos.” She laughs hard at her own joke. “Best goddamn tacos.”

“I hope their graduate department will be good for me,” I explain, but she’s too busy pulling out the piñata’s crepe hairs. “Finding an apartment was – could you please put that down? It’s not yours.”

“You need to chill. They know me here.” She motions for the waitress to come over. “Can I get some chicken fingers?” she asks Jewel. “I’m hungry.”

Jewel grunts when she sees Jo plucking at the piñata. “We’re out of chicken fingers,” she says. “Our kitchen’s small, so we close it down at 10.”

“You don’t even sell chicken fingers, do you?”

“We close in twenty minutes,” Jewel says bluntly and gives Jo’s feet a disgusted look. She takes out a pen from her apron and pokes at Jo’s feet until she takes them off. “I’m going to give your table to another waitress. Thank you.”

After Jewel leaves, I say, “You said they knew you here.”

“I say a lot of shit.”

“Why did you ask me to stay?”

“David flies out tomorrow, third time this month. I thought you might like another weekend of ole’ Jo.”

I scratch my head at this and take a long pull on the Coca-Cola’s straw. “Sometimes,” I say, “I hate you.” And then I pull out the straw and poke in her direction, punctuating. “Hate. Like right now.”

She laughs, holding the piñata in front of her face and speaks in a hee-haw donkey voice. “I don’t know why.”

“I’m serious,” I insist. “I have fun with you, but you’ve got this stupid attitude like I’m a little toy-boy, call me up whenever you have the itch. You’re condescending. A lot. I don’t envy whoever comes next.”

Jo leans forward suddenly and pinches my arm. “Hey, what’s the matter with you? Don’t say things like that.”

Using her legs, Jo pushes the table into my stomach. “You think I just do this? Find some boy, star-struck with my husband, seduce him? Teach him to fuck how I like? Break in another once I’m done with him?

“I’m not in love with you,” and she wiggles all her fingers at me. “When did I say I was? Never. We’re just friends– friends with privileges.”

“It feels like more to me.” I tell her and she gives me a weary look. “I’d like it to be.”

“Is this so bad,” she asks. “I like you. I really do. And I want you to do well. I just…

“You’re being unfair to me. You know how I feel”

“I don’t give a shit how you feel. I don’t.”

“Because you feel the same way I do.”

“No, Stupid. I love my husband. That’s how I feel. Don’t try to qualify my heart. Just because he’s older, doesn’t mean I’m with him for all of that academic money.” She stretches her arms over her head. “Lookit it rain! All the money!”

“When we’re together–“

“Do we make love?” She glares at me, waiting for a response. “‘Don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news from the country of the grown-ups, but, hey, it’s not. Sex is just sex. When you’re fingering me, when I’m fucking you in the bushes. It’s fun, but relationships aren’t… none of that means I’ve stopped loving my man.”

I can’t say anything, can’t stop turning my Coke around and then my ankle starts to itch. I’m embarrassed even though we’re alone.

“Listen,” she says. “Obviously it was a mistake to ask you to stay longer. I misread what we were doing. I thought we were both lonely, that we were being friends. Leave it at that.”

“Friends don’t fuck,” I say.

“If the person you’re fucking isn’t your friend, then you’re in trouble.”

I don’t even realize I’m counting the seconds of silence until I do. Jo reaches across the table for my hand, holds just my fingers. “Here, let’s go see if Shoney’s is open. I’m hungry for some breakfast. Would you like some eggs?”

I jerk away from her, knocking her drink over.

Brown, foamy liquid pours out faster than I expect and I twist my leg against the table trying to avoid it. Small squares of melting ice float on the Coke puddle in the middle of the table, some of it snakes into the grooves of the wood. I napkin up the mess, turning white napkins a reddish-brown.

Jo reaches down into her pocket, brings out a Ziploc bag of rolled cigarettes. Lights one from a book of matches in her pants’ pocket. She shakes her head, pulls her hair loose. She looks at me funny. “I want to kiss you on the neck. To say I’m sorry. Will you let me?”

“Kiss your husband instead.”

Her eyes blink fast, but she recovers quickly, folds her arms, pushes her chair back from the table, closer to the tree.

“Fair enough,” she says, getting up. “C’mon. I want to show you something.”

“I think I should maybe just go home. Tomorrow will be exhausting enough.”

“A graduation gift.” Jo stuffs the Coke-soggy napkins halfway into my glass, stacks the shots on top of each other, sets them on top of the napkin. As I get up, she tears a chunk of bark from the tree and puts it in her pocket. “Seriously,” she says. “Let’s part as friends.”

When we get back to the house, it’s empty. Lights are still on. The floor is a mess of red napkins and beer bottles standing in tight groups like brown army platoons. Jo walks into an adjacent room, reappears with a camera. “This way.” She pulls on my arm, leads me toward the stairs.

Jo laughs when I step out of the bathroom. The suit is a size too big for me, the sleeves only an inch too long, but noticeable and ridiculous. The blazer’s padded shoulders make my head look abnormally small. “Those can be taken out,” she says, “For a natural look.”

“Not going to bother with the tie,” I tell her and when I kick at the pants cuffs that engulf my feet, the right loafer flips off and lands on her bed. I kick the other shoe off, into the bathroom.

“Why did we ever think this could fit me?” I ask her. I use the tooth of the belt buckle to dig a new hole in the leather. “He’s not a little guy.”

“Oh, wow,” she says through her hands. “You’re so handsome.”

I nod at her. “This was a nice idea, Jo. Thanks. But there’s no way it’ll fit.”

Her fingers work at the camera’s lens, trying to pull me into focus. “Maybe not. Doesn’t matter,” she says. “This is fun. This is what I wanted.” The camera whirrs and shoots. “There’s something weird with that noise,” Jo tells me. “It means the camera’s searching for the flash add-on when it’s not there.”

She hugs me around my arms so I can’t hug her back, just smell the shampoo residue in her hair. She holds the camera away, points it at us, lays her head on my shoulder. “Say cheese.” The camera clicks twice and she lets me go.

I step into the bedroom’s bath to wash my hands. When I turn the faucet, the pipes groan and some water comes out in spurts. “Air in the pipes,” I say. “The main flow must have got turned off for a second.”

Jo hugs me again, but from behind and I’m a little uncomfortable with the forced intimacy of the situation. There’s awkwardness with any partnered act in a bathroom. “How long could you put me up in Tempe?” She squeezes my right shoulder, “If I go?”

I almost fall over, but catch the cabinet over the toilet. “What?”

She takes a step back, folds her arms. “I don’t have the time to pack anything. We’d have to leave right now.”
I turn the water off and squint at her. “Again— what are you talking about?”

“I could go. That could happen. Don’t you want me to go?”

“No, no.” I ring my arms around her waist. “I mean, yes. Yes, I do.”

I trace my index finger down the inside ridge of her neck.

The floor creaks and we’re no longer alone. “Jo?” Her husband.

Jo turns. “David?” And I think, was that his name?

He’s disheveled, winky. Brown stains that look maybe like spilled coffee cover his shirt and a long silver and black striped tie unknotted hangs from a belt loop. His brown hair is scattered like the bristles of an overused broom. But with all this, he smells clean, like a hospital.

“Momma had a heart attack,” he says.

Her hands are suddenly in his hair, cradling his neck on her shoulder, his arms wrapping her back. “Oh, baby,” she’s saying. “Is she awake? Breathing? How bad is it?”

They sit down on the bed together. I walk my back up against the wall, but too close and step on a nearby window’s curtains so hard that they jerk the rod from its moorings and I have to duck fast to escape from being hit. Jo looks at me hard, but David doesn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t know, don’t know,” he says and places his hands on Jo’s head. “The doctors keep rushing around me. Kept hearing the word ‘hemorrhaging’ and I can’t tell if they’re just so busy or if they’re trying to avoid my questions. Terry got there before I did. He told me to get cleaned up or something while he waited.”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.” She combs at his hair with her fingers like she does with mine. Strange to see.

“I just got back. I’m just too drunk and my momma’s dying.” He tries to smile, but it’s ugly when he does. He stops, thankfully. “Needed to get some clothes and find you. I couldn’t find you.”

“I’m here, baby.” She finally looks at me. “We went for a walk when the party got too loud. Later I was thinking one of your old suits would be a nice graduation present.”

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Good kid,” then adds: “Smart kid.” And then they were both looking at me, not mad, just looking me over like I was a stranger.

Halfway down the stairs, I realize that I’m still barefoot.

I peek my head in the door, hear the shower running. Jo’s packing a suitcase, carefully folding several pairs of blue and white plaid boxers. I lean half my body inside the door and wave at her, trying to get her attention. Finally, she notices me.

“I forgot my shoes,” I mouth to her and point to my feet, wiggle my toes.

“Fuck your shoes,” she mouths back. “Go.”

She looks around, grabs a pen and paper off of a side table, scribbles, then pushes the paper into my hand. “Don’t let the name fool you,” she says and closes the door, and then just before the clack of the dead bolt: “Best tacos ever, I promise.”

Walking home, I take a different path than the one Jo and I ambled. Different houses, different lights, different cobblestones, different moon. I stop to call a tabby cat to me but it runs away. A breeze picks up, the air feels wet and I think rain’s soon. Twelve blocks to the apartment where I’m sleeping on a couch. A stoplight down the corner switches to red. Twelve blocks to my two blue suitcases and a flowery carry-on that has my shaving kit and an Elmore Leonard paperback. Twelve blocks to two sleeps til my trip out of here. The street stretches out before me. “Twelve more blocks,” I say out loud.

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Jared Hegwood’s work can be seen or is forthcoming from The Adirondack Review, The Yalobusha Review, The Tulane Review, Manifest Review, elimae, Keyhole Magazine, Night Train, Pindeldyboz and others.