A short work of fiction wherein the quality of one’s art is used as a measure of a person’s self worth…
by: Mike Sharlow ((Header art by Arno Rafarl Minkkinen.))
Rod Stewart’s album Every Picture Tells a Story was playing on the stereo. This was my roommate Angelo’s record. The vinyl’s sound crackled and popped from various scratches, but oddly it didn’t skip. The music was turned up loud enough to be heard over the din of the party, but through all this I still heard the screaming.
I ran downstairs and saw Jerry Stevenson slap his girlfriend, Dora Thule, in the face. They were standing under a yellow street light, lit up like players on a stage. The heavy summer humidity made everything a little hazy. I ran towards them, and it surprised me that Jerry ran away.
Dora was crying in heaves, and her tears were black and muddy from mascara. She had short blonde frizzy hair, which had become disheveled by Jerry’s assault. I didn’t know how many times he had hit her before I arrived, but I was sure it wasn’t just once. As I looked her over, I noticed that her fair skin had become puffy and pink. I knew Dora from school, and I thought she was cute, but at the moment she did not look like the same person.
Dora and I had Mrs. Hoyer’s English class together. Dora never raised her hand, but when she was called on, she always had the correct answer. “She had laid the blanket down,” she said quietly. “That’s the correct form of the verb,” Mrs. Hoyer replied in her gravelly smoker’s voice. She was a tiny wrinkled woman who wore too much lipstick. She knew I wanted to be a writer, so she often called on me. I was glad she didn’t this time.
I could tell Dora didn’t want anyone to know how smart she was. She also didn’t laugh loudly or bring attention to herself like a lot of girls did in the halls between classes.
Although Dora and I never talked, we had a connection. She looked at me a lot. I think she was impressed that I was as academically adept as her. What else could it be? She already had a boyfriend.
Dora lived on the bluff like all the rich kids. I had heard her dad was a doctor.
I didn’t know anything about her boyfriend Jerry, although he invited me to cruise around in his yellow Camaro and get high with him and a couple of his friends last winter during a free hour at school. He wasn’t the kind of guy I normally hung out with. I was surprised that he even knew who I was, or that he invited me. We didn’t have any classes together. Now when I thought about it, it all came back to Dora. She must have mentioned me, and Jerry was sizing me up, gauging how much of a threat I was.
Jerry was handsome. He had blond hair which he feathered back and parted fastidiously. His look landed somewhere between attractive and suave, just like a model.
“I’m breaking up with you, you whore!” Jerry screamed from down the street.
“Please stop!” Dora pleaded, followed by another onslaught of tears.
A group of kids arrived at the party and strolled by while I dealt with the fallout between Dora and Jerry.. Reinforcements, I thought until all of them waved at me and one of them asked, “The party here?” They walked right by after briefly assessing the situation. One kid wearing an Aerosmith t-shirt turned around and said said to the girl beside him, “They do this all the time.”
I hadn’t considered this, but the situation wasn’t foreign to me. My dad was an abusive man. I had witnessed him deliberately burn my mom on her bare arm with a cigar, yet he acted like it was an accident. “You did that on purpose!” my mom had cried.
“I did not,” my dad had lied.
I had heard the angry growl, the crack! and then the quiet desperate cries of my mom coming from my parent’s bedroom. My dad liked to be covert with his abuse. He disguised his abuse towards my brothers and I as corporal punishment, but corrective action shouldn’t be a concussive shot to the head or a punch in the mouth.
My mom divorced my dad when I was sixteen. My dad moved to California on the other side of the country. I had grown a lot the last two years, and I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. It bothered me that I couldn’t prove that to him.
I looked down the street at Jerry, who was slowing making his way back towards Dora and me. Jerry was a fearful predator navigating a threat, which was me.
“Stay away, Jerry.” I shouted. I stood my ground, but Jerry walked towards us, slowly, while spewing a litany of insults and threats at Dora. In response I walked towards him, a threatening scowl upon my face, and Jerry turned around again and ran. He reminded me of a dog that will bark from a distance, but when you approached it, would retreat and bark again.
A police car passed. The cop must have noticed Dora’s distress, so he spun around at the corner and came back. He stepped out of his car, took one look at Dora, and then gave me a look like I was the trouble. “Step back, sir,” he said to me in a stern voice. So, I did.
“It wasn’t him,” Dora said.
I looked down the street, aiming to point out Jerry, but he had disappeared.
“Are you okay, miss?”
“l’m okay,” Dora sniffled.
“Can you tell me what happened?” The cop was a few inches taller than me. I was about five-eight, a hundred and thirty-five pounds. I was in good shape. I ran every other day, and I worked at the civic center swinging a big heavy mop back and forth for hours a day. I had long hair, so cops naturally looked at me with suspicion. The cop looked to be in his thirties, and he outweighed me by about forty pounds.
Dora didn’t say anything, so I jumped in. “Her boyfriend beat her up.”
“Is that true?”
Dora nodded, and I took it as a cue to continue. The cop had a pen and a pad to take notes. I explained to the cop what I had heard and seen, and he asked Dora if she wanted to press charges. She nodded.
The cop proceeded to drive us downtown. The lights in the police station were bright and obnoxious. I had never been in the station before, and it exuded intimidation. It naturally made me feel a bit paranoid about all the bong hits I had done an hour earlier.
As we sat there waiting, Dora softly repeated, “Thank you. Thank you so much,” like I had saved her life. We didn’t discuss her relationship with Jerry.
“You’re smart in English class,” Dora said after a bit. She had stopped crying, and her face looked familiar to me again. She looked and sounded like the girl I knew from school, except for a little puffiness on her right cheek.
I could have returned the compliment, but I didn’t. “Thanks,” l said.
“Guys like you aren’t usually good in English.”
This was how rich girls insulted guys like me. She noticed the look on my face and said, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I think it’s good. You’re always reading a book before class.”
“I want to be a writer,” I said, but I immediately wanted to take my statement back. It wasn’t like it was a big secret. My friends knew, but Dora already possessed the ability to make me feel bad without even trying.
“That’s cool. What do you write?” I could sense she was genuinely excited.
I don’t write anything, I thought. I talk about wanting to be a writer. It’s the closest I’ve come. This would have been the honest answer, because I had hardly written anything other than for school. I always told myself that I would start writing once high school was over which was two months ago and I still had yet to write a word. “I’m writing short stories right now. After I get enough of them published, I’ll try to get an agent. That’s what you have to do. Then I’ll start my first novel.”
“Cool! Can I read something?” Dora sat up in her chair, and for the first time that night she truly smiled.
“Maybe some time,” I said.
The cop took me into an all-white room and told me to write out what I had seen. I was compelled to impress him with my mastery of the English language. Twice he came in to see if I was finished. “Still working?” he asked each time. After I finally finished, I waited a couple of minutes, before I stood up and peaked out. Dora was sitting in the same area but in a different chair.
“Done?” The cop walked up to me.
I handed him my statement like it was a masterpiece. His expression didn’t change, as he read. “Okay. We have your number if we need to call, right?”
Okay? Really? No comment? No rave review? What the hell do you know? “Yeah, you have my phone number.”
“You’re free to go.”
“Thank you.” I didn’t know why I was thanking him. Probably because he didn’t thank me. He didn’t even offer me a ride home.
I walked over to Dora. “You done?” I asked.
“I’ve been done for quite a while. You were in there for a long time.” She sounded tired. “My dad is coming to get me. Are the police giving you a ride?”
“No, don’t think so. I’m free to go I guess.”
“I can ask my dad to give you a ride.”
“That’s okay. I can walk.”
Even if this wasn’t the first time Jerry had done this to Dora, I thought it would be the last. She had been through a lot, so I didn’t think it was the right time to ask her for her phone number. Since I wouldn’t see Dora in English class anymore, I hoped I would cross paths with her at another party that summer. We had mutual friends, so I figured I could find out if she was interested in me.
As I left the police station, the warm humid night air wrapped around me, like it had been waiting for my arrival. A summer storm was brewing. The sky to the west was black and rolling in like an invasion. I walked a couple of blocks to the King Theater. Jaws 2 was playing. Three years ago, my dad took my younger brother Tim and I to see the first Jaws movie. Shortly after my parents separated, my dad would take us to movies. It was one of the few things I could stand to do with him. No conversation was required. Jaws was still one of my favorite movies, so I guess going to see it with my dad could be considered a fond memory.
As I stood there staring at the Jaws 2 poster, I felt a drop of rain on my arm. At this point I was about five blocks from home. To beat the downpour, I took off in a dead run. Raindrops peppered the sidewalk around me. I didn’t mind running in the rain, but I didn’t like getting my Adidas wet.
I made it back home before the storm hit. The inside wood stairs leading up to my apartment groaned badly. I always thought it was the sound of the creaking bones of all the tenants who had lived there. Even though the rain had begun to cool things down, I could feel the temperature rise with every step I took. Living in an upstairs apartment without air conditioning could be brutal in the summer, but we did have two fans. One sucked in cooler air from the living room, and the other blew it out through our only kitchen window.
Not long after graduating high school, Angelo and I got an apartment together at 518 1/2 Market Street. It was in an old two story green slate sided house converted into two apartments. Ours had one bedroom. Growing up, both of us always shared a room with brothers, so this was nothing new. A big gas space heater in the living room and the oven in the kitchen were the only heat sources. Needless to say, the bathroom got pretty chilly in the winter.
Weaving through the crowd, I made my way towards the kitchen to get to the fridge. It was filled with beer, but I wanted one of the two cans of Mountain Dew I had stashed behind the box of Arm & Hammer baking soda. They were still there. I cracked one open and took a couple of big gulps to cure my cottonmouth.
I didn’t have any alcohol to drink before, because I was more concerned about the party staying under control than getting drunk. Now that I was home, it was time to drink. There was a bottle of Southern Comfort on the kitchen counter, so I topped off my pop can with a long pour of the rich amber liquid.
“Mick, where you been?” Angelo walked over with of few girls in tow. He was short, but he looked like a cross between a young Al Pacino and a young Dustin Hoffman.
I told the story and the girls treated me like a hero. “You’re such a good guy,” they said, as they stood close enough for me to smell their sweet alcohol breath and the natural scent of their bodies. Both were wearing tank tops with no bras. Going braless was the thing back then. A sheen of perspiration covered their exposed skin. They were drunk, flush, glowing, and very impressed with me. It seemed to annoy Angelo a bit, so I excused myself. My thoughts were preoccupied with Dora anyway.
A couple weeks later I saw Dora and Jerry together at an outdoor party. Jerry was drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and laughing with his friends. Dora was the only girl sitting at their picnic table. She looked bored. As I walked by, Jerry said “hi” and smiled, like he wasn’t the guy I saw beating up his girlfriend. He showed no embarrassment or shame.
Dora didn’t even look at me until I walked over to another picnic table and sat down next to some people I knew. I stared at her until she looked my way. She gave a look as if to say, “What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to be with me. You can read the story I wrote this week.”
I wanted to walk over there and punch Jerry in his snarky face, but I didn’t. I decided to be patient. I would watch and wait. Like that guy in the Aerosmith t-shirt at my apartment said, “They do this all the time.”
The next time I wouldn’t let Jerry get away.
I’ll show him.