Cute as a Frog Hair Split Four Ways
Beneath the flourescent umbrella of an all-night gas station, Benji Johns staggers between sleepwalking and a glimmer of thought. His back is shivering and his skull is twitching and his teeth are chattering even though he's so drunk he cannot feel the cold exactly: he knows it's there, all around him, it just possess no charm whatsoever, no magnetism.
The chill is an old acquaintance he greets with a nod that trails into a back dive, his spine crashes against the passenger-side door of his car while his shoulders and skull bounce off the roof once to the warbly accompaniment of a backstage lightning sound effect.
With his height, Benji's pillow is the dead center of his late-model sports-coupe's charcoal-tinted sunroof. He's more comfortable now, though not as horizontal as he'd prefer. He really should be finding some change so he can make a phone call, but why rush things?
Benji knows it isn't long before the wintry dawn arrives, the sun glorious only in show, but until then he can enjoy the flickering glare.His eyes are shut and still warm from recently shed tears. His eyelids glow a faint red, a flash light held up to closed fingers ... bones revealed in the middle of bloody webbing ... he imagines this is how a fetus feels -- cold pressing against his partially formed spine, skull, lit but not warmed by the flesh-filtered-sun.
A jalopy heading east on Poplar Avenue backfires then screeches away from the light at Evergreen. Benji opens his eyes to a cadaver's view of square lights, aluminum paneling, an empty bird's nest somehow stuffed inside of a tiny crack. He raises his head from the sunroof to look around but gravity's a bitch; he takes its hint, rests his chin on his collarbone.
As the relative silence is returning a few moments later, a tall bearded man walks out of the store, grumbling and rustling paper. Benji watches as the man struggles to unfold a road map without letting the overdue ash of his Camel sprinkle on it, thus destroying the sought after X. Benji's eyes are open but the frame starts to slip, and as Lost-man turns around to get his bearings, his back to Benji, he and an image of another man similar in both appearance and mannerisms compose a double exposure, an eight-millimeter keepsake gone awry ... his hairy neck dyed by blood right below the surface, scattershot of moles and red and thick and ... I swear to God! -- -- Benji's dad screams as he backhands Benji with his right hand, keeping hold of the wheel with his left, darting his bleary, bulging eyes between the interstate and his son's mottled face -- -- If you don't shape up right now, boy, I'll turn us 'round, take you back home! There'll be no circus this year if you don't start listening. Benji's mom, cradling his baby sister in her left arm, huffs -- -- Would you let the boy alone?! All he's done is ask a few questions. Lord forbid we should encourage his curiosity! Benji's dad shoots a look that makes her cringe -- -- Don't start with me! I told you both I wanted peace and quiet, and goddamn it, I'm gonna have me some! There'll be plenty of time for all this fuckin' jabbering when we get to the circus. Till then I don't want to be bothered by the either of you!
"... Stop it," Benji mumbles, hitting his right temple with the bottom of his palm. Lord, he thinks, I need to crash. Benji's never been a lucky person. Things veer away in the opposite direction the instant he recognizes an interest. And, as Lost-man engages in an episode of guttural hocking for what seems like forever, Benji's hopes for returning to his shallow nap shrivel up, die.
"Here we go!" No-longer-lost-man grunts, almost pointing through the map. "What the? East Parkway runs north to south? Makes no damn sense."
Having found his way, No-longer-lost-man starts the origami required to get the road map back into its original rectangular bellows. As No-longer-lost-man mutters over his struggles, cigarette and ash dangling, Benji's double-exposure returns ... a series of blinks until the reel catches ... C'mon, fellas, now lets have us a good day -- -- desperate, Benji's mom sighs to conceal her tone, sliding a coffee-mug-ringed-map-book in the small valley beneath the emergency brake with her right hand -- -- the circus is gonna be so much fun. She turns toward the window, using this same hand to support her chin and cover her mouth as she stares at hilltops blurring past. She knows this routine by heart -- -- that her husband's all too capable of landing a closed-fist while driving seventy, eighty -- -- so she resigns herself to her habitual silence. Benji's learned to dread this vacuum. He knows that no one, especially her, will be coming to his rescue. At the grand old age of eight he knows his life is no fairy tale, that he'll never see any of those dashing cavaliers upon whom fair maidens stake their dowries rushing to take up his campaign. And because he knows that boys like him get it extra rough, that he somehow deserves it. Benji's dad adjusts the rearview mirror. Benji sees his dad leer at his streaming face; Benji's back stiffens. I mean it now, boy. -- he threatens in a calm voice -- -- Shape your ass up or you're really gonna be sorry. You hear? Benji nods and tries to stop crying, but it doesn't work. Benji's dad turns off the radio and sees the map book. Aw, here you go! -- -- he laughs, snapping the book over his shoulder; it barely misses Benji's head -- Whyn't you take out some of your curiosity on that! Find where you won't end up if you don't stop all that goddamn sniffling.
Benji blinks as the screen goes white ... the tail of the reel smacking against the rear metal wheel is really the creaking of the unlatched tailgate of No-longer-lost-man's pick-up as he pulls out of the gas station's parking lot. Benji laughs, thinking he would have kept his ass at home in Little Rock had he known what an utter wash tonight was going to be. In fact, Samantha, Benji's accomplice during tonight's and every other of his adult life's exploits worthy of either boasting of or lying about -- depending on the company -- is inside the gas station's bathroom reiterating his sentiment literally: scrubbing hands raw under scalding water, sacrificing untold layers of skin Just in case, no matter how improbably, a stray droplet had landed somewhere and was trying to ferret out a crack in her resolve. But outside, with the five stubby fingers of his left hand, Benji is lazily searching for a couple pieces of silver that he's only semi-certain lie at the bottom of a cramped pocket.
The shadow stitched to Benji's feet seems grotesque and lanky, alive almost. There's something to the silhouette that doesn't fit. Like the disparity between the virginal tape recording of his voice and the echo in his ears -- -- how it had sounded like a total stranger speaking his thoughts with the cadences of his speech nailed perfect. The shadow is too long or too thin or too something he can't spit out. Yes, it moves with him as he teeters from left to right, but his mind glosses over this observation because of an errant swell rippling through his gut. He's not sure if he's being shown a glimpse of something which, while unsettling, is pertinent; or if he's simply on the verge of recycling his bar tab. He prepares for the latter and bends over -- -- one hand clutching his knee for balance, the other cupping his mouth.
Once his stomach settles down, Benji stands and stares at a patch of pavement outside of his shadow. Overall it's a few shades lighter except where it's been stained by motor oil and anti-freeze. And within the pavement's divoted surface, grains of mica, which so expertly capture what little light exists outside of the umbrella's halo, twinkle. Like so many stars pitched up among the black sky, these exposed fragments emit their light not in steady streams, but in random bursts, flashing as Benji staggers. The litter is interesting too. Borne on an erratic orbit by winds gusting from every angle, each piece of refuse resembles a crumpled, lopsided planet revolving through a space it's too light to warp in the least. None of these still-born worlds holds Benji's attention for long. The still-point beneath his feet is easier to watch anyway. Benji forgets his task of finding change, and simply basks in the warmth the pocket affords his hand.
Samantha Wheesly trots out of the gas station, drying her hands with paper towels. Her dirty blonde, shoulder length locks flap behind a face that, like the rest of her body, seems too long, too horsy, too scrawny. She's stretching her anorexic lips in a smile and has peeled her eyelids as far back as possible without the aid of surgical clamps. "God bless!" she laughs in the accent she and Benji share (one that substitutes an Ah sound for its O's) as she tosses the damp clump of towels to her side. "That was by far the skankiest bathroom I've ever had the pleasure of -- -- " She sees the vacancy on Benji's face, "Fuck, Benji! Haven't you called him yet?!"
Called him yet? And what, miss out watching the asphalt spinning like a drab, oil-stained pinwheel festooned with crumpled cigarette butts, curly cellophane wrappers, whole constellations of shiny objects begging to be catalogued? Benji looks up, mumbles, "Nah, not yet."
Samantha grips his shoulders, "C'mon now, hurry up!"
"Alrighty, Sam, I'm hurrying -- oh look!" Benji slurs, wondering how he could have missed the neighboring liquor store's marquee: a three-dimensional pop-art version of Sputnik.
"Yeah," Samantha yawns, "they fixed the spiky-thing."
Benji takes his eyes off Sputnik and frowns at her. She is the slab of concrete upon which he's forced to stub out his Lincoln-clamped-buzz. Gone now are his thoughts concerning the sign's dynamic and seemingly contradictory revolutions, and the intricate gears and pulleys required to effect this. How it only looks like things are being pulled in opposite directions: a dyslexic image copying what it thinks it sees, the dog-and-tail routine, and just what has Benji been chasing after?
He sighs and pulls out his hand. In it: a dime, several pennies. He resumes his search, muttering -- "I know I got one somewhere" -- but he can't look back up at Sputnik; Samantha's ruined it for him.
"Goddamn! Here," Samantha groans, producing a token from her purse to go with the dime Benji's dug up, slapping it in his palm.
Benji takes the change and staggers toward the pay phone, staring at the shiny coins sliding around his open hand. A shaft of light reflects off Washington's profile, the change sparkles, the frame slips -- -- like it did with Lost-man -- -- as light from the projector's bulb bleeds into this, Benji's wish ... Adam extends his Heineken toward Benji ... light -- -- momentary glint of the perfect toothpaste commercial's success story, a warping of overhead fluorescent tubes -- -- the half-empty beer reflects what, a peace offering? Consolation? Compensation? The whole while, Adam, ever still the same Pretty-boy, is smirking away like there's not a damn thing wrong in existence.
Reluctant, Benji takes the bottle. Instead of opening his mouth, he compresses his pouty lips to half their natural size, a baby refusing one more spoonful of strained peas. Benji's trying to think things through, but he's getting nowhere as he stares at Adam's dense, broad chest and flawless smirking face, that lone dimple. With a nod, Adam motions for Benji to take a drink; he's looped his broad thick thumbs through his belt loops, his large veiny hands fanned out on either side of his zipper, and is tapping his fingers inward. Either Benji is further bombed than he thinks, or Adam is making him light-headed. Benji closes his eyes and steps back. Suddenly, Benji feels very much on the sidelines of his own body, like he left the real one where he'd just been standing. A will he only wishes he had is still out of reach. His head is spinning and, at the bottom of a dark, indeterminate shaft, he sees a nautilus shell twirling on its back like a top. He wants to puke. The nautilus' spiraling design is too much. But somehow, just as the shell's multiple outlines are coalescing into geometric perfection, Benji becomes aware of how he's slicing the bottle through the air with a wicked backhand. Propelled by the pent-up hate from a lie that had spanned the better part of a year, the Heineken shatters against Adam's skull with a deafening thud. Benji opens his eyes, sees Adam's smirk has vanished, sees a blond crewcut bejeweled with emerald sprinklings that complement Adam's floored eyes, sees a burgeoning, spurting crown of blood -- a stationary diadem glistening under the storage room's fluorescent lights.
A thousand novel ways to eliminate the source of his suffering unfurl before Benji's eyes. After a moment's consideration, he grabs Adam at the base of his skull and smashes the broken stump of a bottle into his mouth, turning it from twelve-o'clock to twelve-o'clock several times. He's amused by the interplay of squishy and crunchy sounds resulting from glass grinding through gum and mandible, stripped-gear ... Boy, I'm not gonna tell you again! Stop twisting that knob round. Acting like it's a TV or something! -- -- I's just playing with it, Nana ... -- -- That's what I'm a talking 'bout. You and your sissy be playing with my Whirlpool so much you've darn near broke it. I catch you near it again, boy, I ain't gonna wait to tell your pa, I'll a whup you myself! ... A hailstorm flies out of the gushing hole when Benji withdraws the bottle. With a plink, each tooth lands like the majority of Adam's promises: empty, hollowed out to the core. Benji is bemused by both Adam and his promises: how at first each had seemed like sugar -- -- sweet, pure. Benji now realizes that he hadn't stopped to consider how sugar, like each of those worthless vows, possesses a nature which readily lends itself to decay. He suddenly recalls how some commercial sugar manufacturers use animal bones to grind up the raw cane. Inevitably, bone fragments end up in the finished product, which is why Vegans won't consume it.
Benji picks up one of the teeth and fingers it in his palm, captivated by its beauty. But he finds it impossible to keep his focus for more than a moment because of the gurgling retching Adam makes as he spits out hefty globules of cherry Jell-O-Parfait. Benji stomps Adam's face hard with the heel of his boot, sending the now useless snake-jaw to the ground. Adam retreats on his elbows, leaving wide Lenin-esque banners in his wake because he cannot raise his face off the floor.
With his concentration returned to the token in his palm, Benji holds the tooth up to the light. It's little more than a rotted shell and a chunk of tissue. He isn't sure, but he thinks the tissue seeping in his palm is an abscess. He remembers his mother saying once that those can cause blood poisoning when they pop, thinks: Was for the best then, save him that pain.
Tripping through the hazy lens of a manual-advance film projector, Benji imagines that the alveolar artery had been damned near its terminus (beep) which in turn shriveled the root into a vestigial structure and (beep) primed its housing for decay. He wonders how long the tooth had endured without receiving nourishment. How long had it been so very close to that which could have sustained it, and been denied?
... Although Benji received the present, he wasn't the one who unwrapped it. So he's confused: If you wish for a gruesome thing to happen to somebody, and then it does almost true to form by an agency other than your own, are you culpable because of desire to do so or an intent lacking execution? He doesn't care if he is. And he tells himself in a sudden moment of lucidity that he's through worrying over his lucky accident. Terrible things happen to people every second of every day. You can only do what you can do. Sometimes they don't make it, but you do through no fault of your own. When this happens, it's best just to let things alone. Best just to go on with your life. They would if they could, so there's no reason to feel guilty just because you can.
The glare from the change in his palm recedes as Benji steps up to the pay phone, his final argument with Adam continuing to loop through his mind. Benji blinks, returning as much of himself that can be present to this present, and punches in Stefano's number.
"Hey, Sam," he yells across the parking lot, his face illumined by Edison's epiphany, "come here."
Outside of family and work, Stefano Bonatesta goes by Stephen. As Benji places his call, Stefano's in the middle of a dream, making his way down a tunnel that started out as a storage closet beneath a staircase. To his left and right he sees miniature, dripping stalactites. Each droplet lands with a shrill concussion, shaking the tunnel every few seconds. Stefano doesn't like confining spaces, nor does he like crawling in mud or whatever the filth is that's caking him from head to toe, but he feels the need to push forward, so he does on all fours, then on his elbows. The tunnel dead-ends at a cardboard box. Spray-painted on its side is an arrow pointing toward the ground. Stefano grabs the box and backtracks. The shrill droplets follow him, continuing at the same deafening volume. Once he can stand up, Stefano flips the box. A rotting scent of mildew wafts out as he peels apart the water-stained flaps. Lying on top with yellow fur knotted and nappy is Zippy-pack, Stefano's first teddy bear. The tattered toy's stench repulses him at first, but he conquers the retching urge and hugs it with a kindergartner's aplomb. Disturbed pillbugs seek asylum in the wad of unpacked clothing still in the box by lemming themselves from the bear's fur ... Stefano dreams of Benji, a bed, them lying naked together. So much hair rolling around on Benji's chest, none on Stefano's ... so much to play with, he entangles his fingers hopelessly ... if there were a tower hiding amongst the thicket crisscrossing Benji's lower abdomen, Stefano would scale it no matter how tall it loomed
Stefano loses his grip of Benji's barky tangles and slides into a different dream ... All Stefano wants to do is piss, but Adam's standing in the way like he owns the place. Hi, Stephie -- Adam laughs. This makes Stefano smile, Adam guarding the door to the rest room. A part of Stefano wants to bust out in a regal character, deferring the way to His Travesty as he exits his throne with a proper bow ... he can just see Adam walking on a white carpet woven out of the blood-poisoned crabs which have crawled down his pant legs to die; but Stefano's a pretty sorry actor when he's not into the role -- What the fuck d'you want? Adam laughs as he shoves one of Stefano's shoulders -- Just for you to learn your place. You ain't got what Benji needs. Surprised he ain't thrown your tiny ass back already. Stefano can't keep himself from laughing -- Right. I guess what Benji really needs right now is some brainless skeez with a gangrenous dick. Say Adam -- Stefano shoves him back -- How is the business treating you? ...
As the shrill concussions intensify Stefano wakes. He rolls onto his back and holds the pillow over his face. If it weren't for the Tsk-Tsking voice at the base of his skull admonishing him for his lack of charity, Stefano would disconnect the phone and be done with this. But he can't. It could be Chris Oliver, one of Stefano's closest friends, dialing frantically from a phone booth, having just escaped tonight's trick after the trade went psycho, the phone booth's lights flickering like they do in slasher-flicks. But it's probably the police calling about his brother -- the hood of Antonio's car parted by a tree somewhere after he blacked out from drinking or having an epileptic fit or both, the roof level with the dashboard from the broken toothpick -- for Stefano didn't hear him come home. Either that or it's Benji calling for any number of reasons.
Desperate to get whatever this is over with, Stefano throws the pillow across the room, picks up the phone, growls, "What?"
After a lengthy pause, Samantha says, "Is Stephen there?"
"Sam," Stefano recognizes his beard's twang, "what is it?"
"Benji's fucked up -- -- "
"Put him on." Stefano interrupts with a huff.
The static pitch of Samantha's voice is muffled severely when she cups the receiver with her hand. "Your time to shine, darling. Expect to see some waterworks."
"Shuddup." Benji mumbles in a high-pitched chirp. He clears his throat before taking the receiver. When his voice rises out of the background din of the poor connection it's broken: "St-Stephen ..."
"What is it, Benji?" Stefano checks the time.
Benji responds but his crying makes the words unintelligible.
"After you left ..." -- Benji stutters -- "Me and Sam stayed ... Adam was there ..."
"Yeah, we had a few words!" Stefano laughs, remembering their pre-fight shit-talk until it dawns on him -- "He was the reason y'all stayed, wasn't he?!"
"D-D-Don't hate me!"
"Quit. So you saw Adam. Big deal, right?"
Benji doesn't answer, opting instead to breathe dramatically.
Samantha's in near hysterics, covering her mouth at the sight of his performance.
Benji opens and closes the fingers of his right hand in a jabber-mouth-motion, his head a metronome counting out the measure of Stefano's concern. When he feels it's been long enough, Benji exaggerates his stutter and responds: "Wrong, I mean, we-we-we argued."
The dreamer awakens, mumbles, "Nice."
"Adam kept saying that everything was my fault! That I'm fucked up in the head! And the whole time he was talking I just wanted to ... I wanted ..."
"Well," Benji pretends to swallow a lump in his throat, while this persona -- a persona barely distinguishable from the true Benji, especially tonight -- continues to kick up through the depths of a sedating ocean of too many beers, a free diver gasping after piercing the cresting surf, "I wanted to smash his face with his bottle! I wanted to hurt him as bad as he's hurt me!"
Samantha bends at the knees -- -- elbows pinned to her sides, forearms waving in front of her like windshield wipers on high -- -- as she mimes a scream: "NO! NO! What the FUCK are you doing?!"
"Benji, are you alright?" There's no response. "You still there?"
"Yep," he mumbles, "I'm ... no ... no, I'm tanked. Haven't taken my Paxil all week. Feeling shitty right now."
"Oh my." Stefano replies, tripping through the night's lingering disorientation. "Hey?" he asks gently. "Would you put Sam back on?"
"Please don't hate me!"
"Goddamn, Benji, quit." Stefano shakes his head, pinches his eyes, "I don't hate you, I just need to talk to her 'bout a few things. Alright?"
In his saddest voice, Benji mumbles, "I love you."
"I know. Talk to you in a few minutes."
"Alrighty," Benji holds the receiver out for Samantha.
She tears it from his hands.
Stefano hears a brief murmur which, like before, he can't decipher.
After a few moments, Samantha sighs heavily, "Whassup, girl?"
"So what happened?"
"Pretty much what she said, I guess. But to tell the truth, I didn't hang around her and Adam too long. You know how Benji gets when she's riled up and drunk."
"No," Stefano replies matter-of-factly, "I don't."
"She ain't pretty, girl," Samantha laughs. "Ain't pretty at all." Benji swings his head in Samantha's direction; Samantha spins around.
"Anyway." Stefano sighs and, knowing that Benji would never call on his own, switches targets: "Guess you're the one I should be thanking for this wake-up call."
Samantha laughs but fatigue, having long since extracted most of her sarcasm's teeth, sabotages her half-hearted reply: "Well, Benji's told me how much a morning person you are."
"You cool to drive?"
"Yep, I'm fair to middling."
"Then get Benji's keys from him, he sounds too wasted -- "
"Darling," Samantha interrupts with a curt tone, "I'm so ahead of you. Benji passed the 'Oh, man ... I'm really fucked-up!'-stage 'bout, hmm, let's see, before we even left the club! I mean you saw him. But like I said, I'm good to drive so we'll be there directly." With an intense frown on her face, Samantha slams the phone on its cradle, screams, "Why'd you tell him all that bottle shit?!"
"It just seemed like ..." -- -- Benji spaces out.
Samantha exhales through gritted teeth, cheeks ballooning from the air, hands balled in fists: "Seemed like what?! For chrissake, Benji, that was su-fuckin-premely stupid! Stephen's gonna find out 'bout Adam sooner or later. How much you wanna bet he'll remember you crying, 'I wanted to smash his face?!' "
"I d-d-didn't do it," Benji snaps back, stuttering for real.
"Goddamn it, and I don't care! Alls I can hope for now is that you'll play the shit up as much as you can when we get there. I won't say nothing, just act like I'm over it all. You hear?!" she barks, nodding with hands held out in front of her.
Benji isn't listening but returns the nod in the hopes of shutting her up.
"This way we won't have to make the drive back tonight."
"Don't see why we ain't getting a room at the Benbow instead of all this hassle."
"Because we're both broke, and I ain't gonna be driving all night!" Samantha spits, slinging her hands to her sides. "Fuck, Benji! Can you stay with me, please?!" Her left hand strikes something hard at the bottom of her purse, a reminder of the true motivation behind her desire to stay the night at Stefano's. This mollifies her tone as she continues: "But I must say, that was a nice touch -- the shit 'bout not popping your pills all week. Sounded like he bought it."
Benji smiles in a twitch, staring at the pinwheel again, and says -- "Wasn't a touch ... I, I really haven't ..." -- in a voice that's still too much in character for Samantha's wavering peace of mind.
"Thanks -- " Stefano shakes his head, the sudden ending of tragedy's herald having taken him by surprise. He stares at the phone, listening to the dial tone. But as soon as Stefano abandons the warmth of his bed and dresses, his irritation takes a back seat to an inflated and mistaken sense of purpose.
Decked out in the clothes he'd worn to the club, Stefano walks to the bathroom. He flicks on the light without saluting the mirror first and blinds himself. The red and blue spider webs flickering across both retinas subside while the olive coloring trickles back into his flesh.
When the room is no longer a glaring blur, Stefano grips the sides of the sink and peers into the mirror. Bloodshots fishnet the whites of his eyes and tiny clumps of sleep have stopped up his tear ducts. His inky hair is slapdash, abetted by two cowlicks and a prodigal amount of molder. And the patches of skin visible on his short athletic frame are hennaed with red wavy indentions from the sheets and where his cheek and ear had pressed into the crook of his arm.
Stefano splashes a handful of water across his face, gargles from the tap, and then tries to mat the cowlicks to his scalp with his damp hands. When he's finished, he stares into the mirror again. The single silver hoop in each ear shines and there are beads of water all over his oval face. Gravity drags these beads down from his smooth forehead, over his twice broken, marginally offset nose. Those beads that aren't lost irrigating the open and close parentheses at the ends of his lips drip off his chin. Stefano watches one of these beads as it lands in the sink, expecting the shrill noise from his dream, but it doesn't sound. With a final glance in the mirror Stefano decides he looks cute, but feverish. Nice ... right.
In his stupor Stefano neglects to put on socks or shoes, not noticing for the first five minutes of his breezeway-vigil that his feet are lacking. It's nearing dawn and, for four days before Christmas, the ground is surprisingly warm. So warm that he doesn't mind walking around bare-footed while smoking a cigarette. Although, he is forced to tiptoe if he wants to avoid stepping on the ever-plentiful beer-bottle-shrapnel.
Stefano and his brother have lived in this nondescript townhouse just south of the University for six months now. Prior to that both had been residing at their fraternity's house, the site of Stefano's final attempt at affecting heterosexuality. Her name was Janet.
When Benji's car pulls into the complex, Stefano pops his neck and takes a final drag. Ready to view the wreckage he knows awaits him, Stefano exhales the lungful and flicks the spent butt toward his neighbor's door, staining the peeling wood with a spot of ash that resembles a sketchy check mark.
Benji's car idles in an empty space next to the dumpster, shiny, slick from dew, it looks warmer than it really is. Samantha's reclined in the driver's seat, eyes closed for a brief rest. Benji is hunched over, face hidden in a plane crash drill. Stefano raps his knuckles on Samantha's window to wake her. She cracks her eyes and unlocks the door, scowling as she scoots the seat forward to give Stefano room. Benji, however, never lifts his face from his knobby pillows.
Stefano isn't sure what should happen next: Samantha's well on her way to sleep, pillowing her head against a palm, the window; Benji's sniffling is beginning to taper. The only other sound Stefano can hear is a low, steady hum issuing from the vents.
To break the silence, he gives his best impersonation of a morning news anchor: "Good morning!" Neither Benji nor Samantha respond, so he continues: "Are we just gonna sit here all day, or what?"
Benji looks up and to the left, and as he does, the green glow of the stereo display reflects off the film of moisture sheeting his eyes. "Why the fuck not?!" he stutters. "What else is there to do?!"
Samantha exhales and turns her entire body toward the window, Now that's what I'm talking 'bout.
"For starters," Stefano says, "let's go inside so y'all can get a few hours of good sleep."
"But isn't your brother there!" Benji stammers.
"I don't know," Stefano says, looking out the rear window for Antonio's car and not seeing it. "If he is, I'm sure he's passed out like a rock."
"No, no," Benji protests, sitting up and stretching his arms toward the windshield, managing to avoid all eye contact. "Me and Sam's gotta get back to Li'l Rock here in a few. Just wanted to ... to -- "
Fuck, Benji! You do remember this is an act, right?!
Stefano grabs the top of Benji's headrest, swings forward between the seats, and argues, "No offense, Benji, but you're in no shape to be doing much of anything aside from sleeping. Hate to come off sounding rude, but y'all're staying here."
Bingo! Samantha cracks a smile that only the driver's side window catches.
"But Stephen!" Benji hiccups. "Your brother!"
"But we have to -- "
"No more 'Buts!' " Stefano interrupts.
The sound of Stefano's voice makes Benji flinch, look back blinking.
Impressed once again tonight by Stefano's assertiveness when pushed, Samantha, too, glances back, winks.
"Look," Stefano takes a deep breath, "if it'll make you relax, y'all can sleep on the couches downstairs. That way I can tell Tony y'all're a couple friends who needed a place to crash for the night if he comes home or gets up before I do. Trust me, he won't think twice 'bout it. And hell, it beats one of y'all passing out on the drive home."
With a sigh, Benji concedes, "Sure ... if that's ... what you want."
The instant Benji finishes mumbling this sappish stream, Samantha is out of the car, declaring: "Praise be! There is a God!"
Stefano and Benji's reconciliatory-chit-chat pauses as they turn, mouths open but silent, and stare at her.
Samantha gathers her purse off the floorboard, trying her best to ignore them. When their mannequin-glares finally become too much, she snaps, "What? Gawking at me like I'm the rude one! Fuck, girls, I'm tired as hell! I'm gonna lay my fat ass down before the sun's up, so y'all need to get your shit together and c'mon already!"
Upon entering the narrow living room of Stefano's townhouse, Samantha collapses on the couch in front of the television, like a shot horse, sprawled out, an unattractive splay of mane, mouth and gangly limbs. This leaves only a love seat in the corner. Stefano takes a seat at one end of it and Benji collapses over him.
As Stefano gazes upon the mess of a man whose skull rests in his lap, he wonders why he finds Benji so attractive. There's a potential to Benji's frame -- -- his shoulders are wide for days, but his back is clothes-hanger-skinny; the height is there, perfect in that Stefano has to stand on his tiptoes in order to kiss Benji on the lips; and although the lines of Benji's six-pack are buried, they could be exhumed with but minimal effort -- -- but he drinks like he has gills instead of lungs. It doesn't matter if something's bothering Benji or not, as his consumption always teeters on the bottom. Lastly, and the most vibrant of the carmine flags flapping about, there is Benji's inconsistent reliance on anti-depressants. Drugs are fine. If you need them, you need them, there's no shame in that, just take them like you're supposed to or why bother?
But on the plus side -- Stefano rationalizes -- he does have one of the cutest faces. Benji would resemble a younger Chris Parnell of Saturday Night Live spliced with the current über-flip-flop of gay porn, Tommy Lord, only not as gone on poppers or whatever was imbibed in order to get through the last scene of CUFFED!
Benji's cheeks are full, just enough to pinch, nothing more -- the cutest distraction -- but what stands out the most are his eyes. An intense azure, they are also shotgunned with green specks that create a shimmering effect when the lids aren't stalled in a beer-sodden neutral. Stefano runs his fingers through Benji's thinning hair, smiles.
After several minutes of Benji fidgeting, trying to get comfortable, Stefano suggests they go upstairs. "You sure it's okay?" Benji mumbles half-asleep.
Stefano smiles: "Let's get you to a proper bed."
"Alrighty," Benji stands up with his eyes shut.
Stefano takes Benji's hand and leads the blind. With the door locked, he feels it's safer keeping Benji by his side than abandoning him to the company of knives.
Desiring nothing more ambitious than the opportunity to put this night behind him, Benji crawls onto the twin bed fully clothed. Stefano smiles and tends to him -- removing Benji's shirt, pants, shoes and socks -- before slinging his own clothes to the floor and sliding under the covers.
Benji snuggles up against Stefano, laying his head on the smooth chest and snaking his arms around the small waist. Benji exhales deeply, his attention fixating on the rhythm of Stefano's heart, and smacks his lips, "You're so cute, babe."
"Yeah?" Stefano chuckles. "How cute?"
Benji yawns violently, "As a frognnairsplitfffour ..."
"A what?" Stefano asks, twirling a sprig of Benji's fine hair around his index finger. Stefano might as well be posing the question to the walls because Benji passed out as soon as he slurred his compliment. Despite the drama, Stefano thinks, just lying here together, feeling Benji's stubble and warm, furry flesh pressing into him like he's something reassuring, is beyond nice. It's something he wishes they could do without sneaking around, something he knows they could if he'd only -- Stefano concentrates on the warmth radiating from Benji's flesh. He mistakes it for something more than entropy in action. For something that's shared between them. For something that connotes if not intimacy then the potential for it. And for something similar to what he felt for Janet only concentrated, Five-Alive -- frozen, straight out of the pressed cardboard cylinder ... sweet, ready
And with that, the toasty comfort Stefano abandoned almost an hour ago lulls him back to sleep: thoughts of smiles baring teeth, peaceful lips pursing in anticipation of a desiccating caress, flash across his mind.
The exact moment Samantha hears Stefano lock his bedroom door, she opens her eyes in a pair of Cheshire slits. Without moving her head, she glances at the clock on the VCR and notes the time. After waiting for another ten minutes to make sure Benji and Stefano are tucked in and unlikely to interrupt her, she rises from the couch.
The dim glow from the streetlights seeps through the semi-closed blinds, washing the bleached walls of the living room in a nap inducing shade of gray. Samantha fights off a yawn and picks up her purse, her left shoulder slumping over from its weight. She moseys to the kitchenette, scanning the closed cabinets, the refrigerator, the stove and then the sink, looking for just the right spot.
She sets her purse on the counter and opens the cabinet door directly under the sink. A black dingy space prone to leaks, it contains one bottle each of dishwasher liquid and window cleaner, one spray can of bug killer, two quarts of 10W-30, and three neatly folded brown paper bags. Samantha removes a wadded plastic sack from the depths of her purse, adjusting her grip on the slender end of the sack to avoid contact with the interior as she rinses clean the fractured Heineken bottle under the tap. With a wad of paper towels grabbed from the roll over the sink, Samantha wipes off the bottle. She then aims the bottle toward the back of the cabinet space, accidentally scraping a jagged edge of glass against the sink's trap. This sound, although faint -- stops her cold -- makes her think of the fallout she had discovered ... a tiny thread of Adam's gum tissue holding a single tooth to the mutilated bottle ... a mouth obliterated, almost all of his upper and lower front teeth knocked out, and littered with green pieces of glass; lips, gums sheared off sloppily, the still moist pieces of which, along with the teeth, were lying scattered around his body; his Adam's apple was also lying on the floor in a mass. All that was left of where it should have been was a gaping wound filling with blood -- a vagina unfolded and then circumcised with a grater.
Samantha shakes her head and readjusts her aim, hiding the bottle under the paper bags, which are angled toward the back of the cabinet like a lean-to. Next, she creeps to the love seat, lifts up its cushions, and plants a small square seed, endocot and all, with the crinkled plastic sack sheathing her right hand. After turning the sack inside out and cramming it in the lowermost regions of her purse, right next to the wallet she hasn't yet decided where to plant, Samantha returns to the kitchen sink and repeats her gas station vigilance, Just in case.
When she's done, Samantha wipes off the cabinet handles and the faucet with the dishrag slung over the divide. She doesn't dislike Stefano in the least. Compared to Adam, she'd carry Stefano's child, to term even, but she realizes the need for an out should people start asking questions. That's all this is. There's nothing personal about it. Nothing more than a necessary and acceptable loss: Stefano is little more than a distraction to Benji -- he'd told her as much on the drive over -- one that's already losing its effectiveness. And Samantha's not about to let Benji's life get ruined over Adam. Stefano -- if the police link him to Adam -- would provide them with an equally effective distraction as he has for Benji. With fingerprints gone, evidence misplanted, it's simple, efficient. Yes, with blood rinsed off and prints wiped clean, it's nowhere near demonstrative proof, but it'll be a strong, incriminating circumstantial when the police are able to match fragments from Adam's face with the bottle. And that, Samantha tells herself, would be enough, especially after taking into consideration the eyewitness accounts of Stefano and Adam's fist fight that are sure to be volunteered once the word gets out. Samantha's so proud of herself.
She runs her damp fingers through her hair and returns to the couch, where her skull slips heavily into the linty realm of lost change.
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