Guy Stuff

Robert Long Foreman

So he’s a bit of a fixer upper, thought Melanie. He’s got a couple of flaws.

He’s from Warwood. He needs a haircut. He probably doesn’t floss. He’s not in Key Club.

Melanie had never frenched with a guy who wasn’t in Key Club.

Not that there weren’t reasons someone wouldn’t want to be in Key Club. She had been in Key Club for a year and still didn’t know what it was, exactly. She hadn’t been given any keys. Still, there were a lot of people in Key Club, enough that it was weird for someone to not be in it.

But Jill’s parents were out of town. It was a party. Jill had invited to the party her boyfriend Dave, their friend Doreen, Doreen’s boyfriend Marcus, Melanie, and Brandon.

Brandon wasn’t Melanie’s boyfriend. She barely knew him. He had moved to Kansas City just two months before then, enrolling at the high school mid-semester. He was on the wrestling team.

Melanie’s friends and their guys had peeled off from the group and gone to other parts of the house, and so she and Brandon sat together on the couch in Jill’s furnished basement. They talked about Melanie’s parents and what her life was like. Melanie asked Brandon what his parents and life were like.

He didn’t give any straight answers. He didn’t seem to know for sure what his parents did for a living.

He kept getting distracted by the vintage Chiefs and Royals gear that Jill’s dad kept in the basement where they sat. “It’s classic stuff,” he said more than once, looking around them at the walls where towels and jerseys hung in frames. A display case in the corner held a football that was signed by guys from football. “He’s got a Jerry Burkowski ’77,” said Brandon, the awe in his voice as audible as an audible called on the field by Burkowski himself in the 1977 AFC championship game.

He looked at Melanie, and saw that she was looking closely at the drawstrings on her hoodie. That meant she was bored. “Sorry,” he said. “Guy stuff.”

It was then that her wet lips met his wet lips and the frenching began.

Brandon was a good kisser. He used his lips well. His tongue was the right size for his mouth, which meant it was a good size for Melanie’s mouth, too, since their mouths were about the same size. He didn’t use his teeth, which was nearly always for the best.

Things in the basement heated up fast. Brandon helped Melanie take off her hoodie, she his. She looked around to ensure they were really alone, that no one had adjourned to the space behind the couch, or whatever. Who knew what her friends were into, what furniture they liked to climb behind to grope guys.

A few minutes in, Melanie put her hand on Brandon’s chest. Until then, her hands had been at her sides, totally limp, which she knew would have looked awkward to anyone who might have been watching. She knew she was supposed to do more things with her hands, but until then she hadn’t felt like doing them.

Now she felt like doing them. She slipped her hand up Brandon’s shirt and felt his flat, warm belly. Brandon had a good belly.

He probably doesn’t call it a “belly,” she thought. It’s not a guy word.

She put her hand on his side and gently squeezed.

Soon, Melanie unbuckled Brandon’s belt, and unbuttoned his jeans.

She had planned this. Her friends had planned it, too. She had not gotten past frenching with any guys. Neither had her friends. They had talked about it, deciding in advance of the party that tonight was the night for all three of them to go farther with guys than they’d gone before.

They knew what they were getting into. They were modern teenagers. They’d had access to the internet for years.

Melanie slid her hand down Brandon’s boxer briefs, a Royals logo on their waistband.

Her fingers caressed the flesh of his hip until she felt something metal.

Metal? she thought. Are those his keys?

They weren’t keys. She would know keys if she felt them. The first thing they’d taught her at Key Club was how to recognize keys. It wasn’t even multiple things she felt, it was just one thing, and whatever it was it wasn’t in his pocket, it was in his body, growing out of it. Where his fleshy hip should have been there was a smooth, cold metal thing, with a lip, shaped like a hip but not quite a hip.

The metal was embedded in Brandon’s flesh. It was cold.

OK, she thought.

They were frenching still, lollipoping each other’s mouths, one of them breaking away from time to time to do some neck-licking.

Melanie hadn’t flinched, when she’d found the cold metal that grew out of Brandon’s body. Brandon hadn’t flinched, when she’d touched it.

Does it hurt, she wondered, to have that there?

Probably not.

Her fingertips left the metal interruption on the far edge of his lower torso, and soon found what felt like a smooth groove of carved cherry wood, running from there to the other end of his abdomen. This isn’t right, she thought. Something is wrong. But she knew going into this that Brandon was a fixer-upper. She wasn’t going to let metal and wood halt her progress.

She followed where the groove led her. When she reached its midpoint, a few inches south of Brandon’s navel, he moaned. His lips left hers, momentarily. Then he was back, frenching again at full force.

Melanie’s hand found what felt to her like stucco.

It was quality stuff—her father was a contractor, and she knew good stucco when she felt it. It didn’t seem to be stuck to Brandon so much that it was him. He must have been born with it there, for it was what Brandon was partially comprised of.

He didn’t respond one way or another to the way she caressed his stucco. She could sense, somehow, perhaps from the way his lips and tongue moved against hers, that he was growing impatient.

He shifted his body a certain way, against the couch, so that without having to be obvious about it he guided her hand lower, past his stucco, further down his pants, until her fingertips came across something altogether new.

It was a subtle outcropping, a modest calcific promontory that rose just out of Brandon. It was warm, there. It seemed to invite her hand past it and into an opening she soon realized lay inches below.

Melanie’s fingers paused against the threshold. Brandon said, “Ah.”

He hadn’t said “Ah” before.

It wasn’t a bad “Ah.”

Melanie wasn’t so sure about this.

Stucco was one thing. But a calcific promontory? If this was an expected feature of guys, it seemed to her that someone would have told her about it. Surely her parents would have sat her down for an explanatory lecture. As it was, they hadn’t ever talked with her about much of anything.

She hesitated like this for half a minute, indecisive, until she recited her mantra, in her head. Oh, well, it went. I will live only once; only once will I live.

She plunged her hand in.

“Mm,” said Brandon, exhaling against her face with his nose. “Nmmh,” he said.

The cave seemed to extend far into Brandon. A cave was definitely what it was, an undersea cavity, the sort of crevice one would expect to find while scuba diving, not while making out. She had thought it would be warm inside a person, but Brandon’s interior was cool, and wet. There was a draft. There was enough space that she could fit her whole hand in, and more.

On its way in, her hand brushed what felt like a sea anemone, like what she might have seen before in photos of the ocean. Except this wasn’t the ocean, it was Brandon.

She felt around, more out of the spirit of exploration, now, than pleasure. It wasn’t long before Melanie was up to her elbow in Brandon.

She had never been to the ocean. She lived in Missouri, and when her family traveled it was always to Illinois, to see her sickly grandparents.

There were nodules in Brandon. They may have also been displaced sea life. When Melanie touched them, Brandon convulsed so hard she thought he might orgasm then and there.

She didn’t want that. This wasn’t over. There was more of Brandon to explore. Now that she was as far in as she was, she wanted access to the whole guy.

Is this, thought Melanie, as she groped around in Brandon, a climate change thing? Has Brandon accepted certain features of our acidifying oceans into himself, in order to help save them?

Is it a tax write-off?

She wrapped her fingers around what felt like a miniature bicycle pump that hung from the back of Brandon’s cave.

“Oh, yes,” said Brandon when she found it, breaking his lips away from hers. “Oh god, yes,” he said.

She looked at him, her eyes open for the first time since her journey into Brandon began.

He opened his eyes. He looked at her.

“Do it,” he said. “Pump it. Pump the shit out of it.”

Their lips met again as she found a ring on Brandon’s pump. She put her thumb into it, and found a corresponding bar on which she anchored her middle and index fingers. She began pumping, and heard a hiss from inside Brandon, like the sound of air moving through him.

As Melanie pumped, Brandon convulsed again, with an order of pleasure she had not felt herself or observed in another person. “Uh,” he said, then, “Ah-uh.” He went, “Uuuaaagh.” He was loud. It was alarming, how good he appeared to feel. For a moment, Melanie thought Brandon might levitate off the couch and blast his way out the basement window.

Instead, he grabbed her shoulder—to signal, she knew, that she should cease pumping. When she did, she felt something warm spew out of the cave and onto her arm, which was still buried in Brandon.

“Oh my fuck,” he said when the jelly came. “Thank you, Jesus Christ.”

It was over.

She found that his secretion had lubricated her hand, which meant she could pull her thumb from the pump ring with ease. She thought that must have been why it came out of him. It must have been one reason why.

She withdrew her arm, brushing against Brandon’s nodules again on the way, which made him shudder. When her arm was in the open air once more, she saw that it was covered with what looked like jellied motor oil.

Breathing hard, Brandon found his hoodie and reached into one pocket, from which he withdrew a dozen Handi Wipes, probably stolen from the Denny’s where he washed dishes between school and wrestling practice.

He was sweating.

Melanie wasn’t sweating, but her hand was cramped from all the pumping, which had been harder than she would have expected, had she expected it. She promised herself that the man she married would have a pump with a lower resistance setting.

When Melanie was finally clean, with a pile of blackened Handi Wipes on the coffee table, she saw that Brandon had his eyes closed. His head was tilted toward the floor, and he was mumbling something. It was like he was praying.

He nodded, once, and opened his eyes. He leaned in to kiss Melanie once more. She kissed him back.

She wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. Something had definitely happened.

She decided she was glad it had happened.

Brandon pulled his pants up, buckled his belt again, and held her. Both of them were silent for a while.

He turned to her, eventually. She turned to him.

He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t not-smiling, not really.

“You’re a bit of a fixer upper,” he said with a shrug. “You’ve got a couple of bugs.”

Melanie didn’t know what to say.

“You have an unlikely wardrobe, but you fit like a warm robe, when we cuddle together on your friend’s rug.”

“We’re not on the rug,” she said.

“So you’re a bit of a fixer upper,” he said with another shrug. “It’s a minor thing.”

“It is?” she said.

He kissed her again. “Of course it is,” he said.

She leaned into him. He held her for what felt like a long time.

They heard footsteps. Jill entered from the stairway entrance with Dave. Dave was dreamy-eyed, and so was Jill, but to Melanie Jill’s dreamy eyes looked put on.

Dave said, “It sure smells like sulfur down here.” He waved his hand in front of his face. He looked at Jill. “I think I know what they’ve been up to.”

Jill smiled and nodded.

Dave told Melanie, “Whoa, girl, I think you missed a spot.” He gestured to his face.

Melanie felt the spot on her own face that Dave had gestured to. Some of Brandon’s jellied oil was there.

How had she missed it when she cleaned up? How had it gotten on her face?

Dave laughed. Jill sort of laughed. Brandon laughed some, too, handing Melanie another Handi Wipe. She went to work with it, cleaning away, her face red with embarrassment, and not, she hoped, in reaction to the substance that had emerged from Brandon.

Still laughing, Dave came and sat beside Melanie. “Tell me all about it,” he said, talking past Melanie to Brandon.

Jill remained near the staircase, holding herself.

“How’d our girl do?” asked Dave.

Brandon had a smile on his face. He looked stoned. “What’s to tell?” he said.

“Come on, Melanie” said Dave. “What’d you guys get up to down here?”

Melanie was torn. Dave’s curiosity was out of line, and she didn’t trust him not to broadcast whatever she told him to everyone at school. But she wanted to offer up some details, in the hope that she could gauge from his reaction whether what she’d just done with Brandon was normal, or if it was evidence of Brandon’s having suffered through some ordeal that had led to his oceanic reconstruction. It had occurred to Melanie that Brandon might be living in the service of some unnatural force, his body transformed so that it could serve the needs of a nature not of this earth.

“I gave him a hand job,” said Melanie.

“Nice!” cried Dave. “Workin’ on that pump-pump, right? Gotta get it workin’!”

“It is hard work,” she said.

“I’ll say. Pump, pump, pump.”

Just over Melanie’s head, Dave gave Brandon an aggressive, high-impact high five.

“It really is harder than I expected,” said Melanie, flexing her aching hand.

“What do you mean?” asked Jill.

“What do you think?” Dave shouted, not asking so much as making a loud display of asking.

“The little metal pump,” said Melanie. “My finger strength just isn’t what it could be.”

“Finger strength,” laughed Dave.

“What pump?” asked Jill.

Melanie wished Jill hadn’t asked.

“You know,” said Brandon.

Jill looked at Dave. She looked confused. She said to Melanie, “Yours had a pump?”

“Come on,” said Dave, his face turning red. “The pump.”

“Wait just a minute,” said Brandon, to Jill. “Have you not gotten to fifth base with Dave?”

“Of course she hasn’t,” said Dave, clearly upset. “I mean, has. She has.”

“I don’t think I have,” said Jill, ignoring Dave. “I think we skipped base five and went straight to six.”

Brandon couldn’t believe it. He looked at Dave. “Are you crazy?” he said. “Base five is unreal.”

It was then that Marcus returned to the basement, followed by Doreen, who walked in with her arms folded. Jill’s arms were folded, too, in a posture of defense.

“What’s going on, you two?” asked Brandon. “You take her to the moon, Marcus?”

“Something like that,” said Marcus with a proud grin.

There ensued a silent moment, when Marcus looked away and his grin broadened.

“What is it?” asked Brandon, also grinning, now. “What’s going on over there?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on, man! What’s up?”

“Good news is what’s up,” said Marcus, with a knowing laugh. “We went all the way to station nine together.”

The guys in the basement were silent. They were struck dumb.

Melanie and Jill both looked at Doreen, hoping for some nonverbal signal that might help explain what that meant.

Doreen gave no such signal.

Marcus was crying. “I’m going to have a baby,” he said.

Brandon rushed to hug him.

They held one another for a long time, while Dave stood to one side, also in tears.

The young women stayed where they were, Jill and Doreen by the staircase, Melanie sunken into the couch.

Dave wiped his eyes and said, “I better get some towels. If this is anything like last time, it won’t take long.” He went upstairs.

With Dave gone, and the other guys still embracing, Melanie stood and walked silently to where Jill and Doreen were standing. She was about to ask, quietly, what they thought the three of them should do, when Marcus began howling. He doubled over.

“I knew it wouldn’t be long,” said Dave. He was back, with the towels. They were from Jill’s parents’ bathroom. Jill was too frightened to tell him he should use different towels.

Marcus’s howl was an animal noise, shrill as a siren, hard and guttural, emerging from someplace deep inside of him.

“I can’t do it,” he said with a moan. “I want to go home.”

“You can do this, buddy,” said Brandon. He turned to Dave and said, “Get his pants off. Hold his other leg.”

Melanie watched from the third stair as the two guys wrestled off their friend’s jeans and red boxer briefs. Marcus flailed and kicked. Melanie couldn’t see him clearly; the other two guys were in the way. They pinned Marcus’s legs back, and pressed him against the floor, as he continued to scream and plead. “Kill me,” he begged. “Please, I don’t want to see it.”

Thank goodness, thought Melanie, Jill’s parents aren’t home.

She turned to say as much to her friends, but they weren’t there. They were upstairs. She rushed to catch up with them.

Marcus was still screaming when Melanie found her friends in the kitchen.

“What’s happening?” asked Doreen.

“I don’t know,” said Jill. “Did you get Marcus pregnant?”

“I don’t think so,” said Doreen.

“What did you do?” asked Melanie.

“I proceeded down a long hallway,” said Doreen, in a halting cadence. “I found a riddle, at the bottom of a whirlpool. I was lost in fog until I found a coin.”

“What denomination?” asked Jill.

“I don’t know,” said Doreen. “I looked, but there were no numbers on the coinface, only glimpses of famine and sorrow.”

“Did the coin get him pregnant?” asked Melanie.

Doreen shook her head in confusion. “I gave it to the boatman,” she said.

“Boatman?” asked Jill. “Tell me what you saw in the boatman’s face. Did he look as if he’d lost a thousand years in but a passing moment?”

Doreen didn’t answer. Marcus had stopped screaming. There was silence from the basement, for a second that became ten seconds, and then the young men began howling—not like Marcus had howled. They were cheering. It sounded like a varsity basketball game down there.

“It’s a guy!” shouted Brandon.

“A guy?” cried Marcus. “Praise God!”

“God be praised,” agreed Dave. He sounded like he was still crying.

Melanie looked at Doreen. “We should go,” she said.

“Don’t go,” pleaded Jill. “Please.”

“You should come, too,” said Melanie.

“It’s my house,” she said.

“What’s he doing?” asked Marcus, down in the basement. “Where’s he going?”

“He’s going upstairs,” said Marcus. “My god, he’s strong.”

“That’s our little guy,” shouted Dave.

They heard Dave clap his hands, once, out of pride.

The three young women were paralyzed, now, huddled together at one end of the kitchen, afraid and yet eager to know what it was that was grunting its way up the stairs.

It came slowly, whatever it was. Dave, Brandon, and Marcus followed close behind.

Melanie saw that Brandon’s arms were covered with blood and fluid. It must have come from Marcus, she thought. She had witnessed her younger brother’s birth, and knew childbirth was not an immaculate thing; nor, apparently, was the birth of whatever had emerged from Marcus, who now wore his Chiefs sweatshirt and a towel around his waist. He was weak. He had to lean against the wall for support.

“What is going on?” Melanie asked Jill in a whisper.

Jill didn’t answer. It was clear from her expression that she was afraid.

The women saw the men before they saw the figure they were trailing up the steps. Soon, it placed its little hands on the top step and pulled itself into the kitchen.

It looked like a humanoid gazelle in infant form. It had long, skinny limbs. It was small, but it moved deliberately, pulling itself with arms like kindling, pressing hard against each step with its legs to propel it forward and upward. It was like a wet, bloody Kermit the Frog. It wheezed and seemed to know where it was going. Its face dragged along the ground. It had long, stringy hair. It was pulling something with it, an object like a black box that it dragged under its skinny body.

The creature grew as it moved. With every wheeze it took it seemed to expand slightly. By the time it had made its way a few feet into the kitchen, creeping wetly across the floor, it was twice the size it had been. The black box grew with it. The women watched, frozen in place.

“I can’t believe it,” said Brandon.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Dave.

“I think it is,” said Brandon.

“God be praised,” Marcus said hoarsely. “We should pray.”

“No doubt,” agreed Dave.

The three young men formed a circle around the creature. They locked arms, shut their eyes tight, and tilted their faces toward the still-growing figure that twitched and pulsated at their feet.

The young women moved together, slowly, toward the door to the backyard. Melanie wanted to leave, but she didn’t want to leave her friends behind.

“Thank you, God,” said Brandon, loudly, as if God might not hear him if he didn’t pray loudly enough. “Thank you for this gift you have given us, in the form of a new guy who can be in our group of guys.”

Melanie blinked and looked again at the growing creature. Brandon had called it a guy.

The creature’s head had looked strange to Melanie. It had seemed misshapen. She realized now that that it had only seemed that way because it was wearing a hat. It had on a blue baseball cap, a Royals logo on its front.

The hat was growing with the creature’s head, and all the rest of it. It was becoming a guy like the guys who were huddled around it.

It had on Reeboks. That’s what that logo was. It wore jeans and a T-shirt. Its clothes grew as the humanoid figure expanded, inflating slowly on the floor. Melanie couldn’t see its face, but give it another minute, she thought, and it could enroll at Park Hill next semester and no one would bat an eyelash.

“Thank you for sending us this great guy, God,” continued Brandon. “And for sending him to us with a PS4. We’ve been playing Madden on Dave’s PS3 for, like, a year now. Now we can get the new Madden. This is fucking great.

“You didn’t send us any controllers, God, but we can buy those. They’re only $29.99, and I still have some allowance money that I saved. Maybe you knew that.”

He laughed and shook his head. “Of course you knew,” he said.

Melanie looked at the box clutched in the creature’s arms. She didn’t know an Xbox One from a Sega Genesis, but she could see, now, that what the creature held was some kind of video game system. If Brandon said it was a PS4, then that was what it must have been.

“God,” said Brandon, his eyes shut tight. “You are so great. You’re God’s gift to guys everywhere. Thank you for this. Thank you for the Powerades you bestoweth to us last weekend, when we bought all those Funyuns and didn’t have any money left over for Powerades. Thank you for March Madness.

“You’ve gone above and beyond, God. You’ve sent us a whole new guy. This shit is dope. Amen.”

When the guys opened their eyes, and unlocked their arms, they looked and saw that their new guy had grown completely. He was face-up on the floor, now, blinking up at the light.

His was one of the handsomer faces Melanie had seen in Kansas City. He had high cheekbones and blue eyes, hair the shade of sun-beaten straw. In his face she saw at one and the same time innocence and experience, locked together in conflict and harmony. He looked like a television star from a show that had been cancelled before it could air, because America was unprepared to look upon his face.

This guy wasn’t anything like Kermit the Frog. He was going to be popular, as long as he was a real human being and not a humanoid changeling sent to set all good things to ruin. And even then.

Dave and Brandon took one and another of their new guy’s arms and pulled him up.

There the new guy stood, then, his PS4 clutched under one arm, looking sixteen years old like the rest of them, but really barely sixteen minutes old.

“Hey, man,” said Brandon. “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Jerry,” said the teenager who moments prior had been nothing more than a humanoid bolus. He cleared his throat. “I’m from Blue Springs,” he said.

“Blue Springs?” said Marcus. “I’m from Blue Springs. That shit is dope.”

Dave pointed to Jerry’s shirt. “You like the Chiefs?”

“Yeah,” said Jerry.

“What did you think of their defense last season, though?”

He shrugged. “It could have been better.”

“That’s right, that’s right,” said Brandon. He high-fived Jerry, who had an innate understanding of high-fives.

“My God,” said Dave, with tears in his eyes. “The Lord is wonderful.”

Brandon put his hand on Dave’s shoulder. “He is, man,” he said. “He really is. Enough of the crying, though, dude, you gotta lock that down.”

“My bad,” said Dave, wiping his eyes with his Royals shirt.

Jerry cleared his throat again, and looked around at the guys who had birthed him. “Hey, guys,” he said. “I hate to impose. But I’m thirsty. You got any Powerade?”

“Fuckin’ A,” said Brandon. “I have a ton, at my house. That shit is unreal.”

“I know,” said Jerry. “It’s like a gift from God.”

Brandon looked at Marcus. Marcus winked at Brandon.

“All right,” said Brandon, turning to the women. “We gotta go.”

“OK,” said Jill. She could hardly speak.

“Sorry about the mess in your basement.”

“Mess?”

“There’s a whole afterbirth situation down there. You’ll probably want to not touch it for a few hours, then steam mop the whole thing.”

“The whole thing?”

“Come on, man,” urged Marcus, halfway out the room, in the bloody towel. “Let’s go.”

“I have to go,” said Brandon to the women.

“What about Marcus’s pants?” Jill asked.

“Oh, yeah,” said Brandon. “You’ll want to burn those.”

“Why?” asked Jill, gripping Brandon’s sleeve, to stop him from leaving. Marcus, Dave and Jerry were already gone.

Brandon turned to her with a sigh. “Why do you think?” he said.

“I don’t know what to think.”

“It’s guy stuff.”

“Guy stuff?”

“What does that mean?” Melanie erupted. “What in the world is going on? What did we even do down there? How did you adopt a portion of the vast Pacific into yourself? That was the Pacific, wasn’t it?”

Brandon looked hurt, for a moment. He didn’t speak.

“I mean,” said Melanie, “I just don’t know anything about this. How did your friend even get here?”

Brandon’s face turned red with rage in an instant.

“All right,” he cried. “I’ll explain everything.”

Melanie backed against the counter.

“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” shouted Brandon, “about my friend Jerry. His name is Jerry. He has a name, and it’s Jerry.”

“I know,” Melanie managed to say.

“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” said Brandon, still loudly, “but Jerry and I are tight as fuck. And you. What do you think, we’re married now? Do you think we’re in a relationship?”

“No.”

“Because we’re not, Mel. We are not. My God. Do you think you’re the only girl to surpass my calcific promontory? Do you think you’re the only one to travel there by way of erotic touch this month?”

Melanie was crying, now, but not because she wanted to be in a relationship with Brandon, or ever put her arm in him again. It was the shouting that made her cry. It was humiliating, to be shouted at like that. Sometimes it doesn’t take much.

“I am the fourth most noteworthy guy at Park Hill!” bellowed Brandon to the mostly empty house. “And Marcus is probably third. Dave I don’t know about,” he added in a more subdued tone. “All that crying. I don’t know about him right now.

“But you,” he said, focused again on Melanie. “You are nothing,” he said. You are a weird girl. By your own admission, you lack finger strength. And you wear wool sweaters?”

Brandon shook his head and sighed, watching tears stream down Melanie’s face.

There was a loaf of white bread on the kitchen counter. “I’m taking this,” Brandon said to Jill and Doreen. “I need carbs. Why don’t you help your friend.”

He stormed out with the loaf of bread.

Melanie was sobbing quietly, by the counter, looking down, through her tears, at the dark red stain Jerry had left where he’d formed damply on the linoleum.

After a long silence, Doreen looked at Jill, shrugged, and said, “He’s a bit of a fixer upper.”

“He’s got a couple of flaws,” agreed Jill.

“From how he screamed in your kitchen, there must be a glitch in the connection between his brain and jaws.”

Melanie looked from one friend to another. “Are you defending him?” she asked.

“He’s a bit of a fixer upper,” said Doreen. “It’s a minor thing. Just think of the trauma you’ll instill in your mama, when she sees you with his engagement ring.”

“Hold on,” said Melanie.

“What?” said Doreen.

“I don’t think you’ve been paying attention to what just happened.”

“Melanie,” said Jill, “we don’t think you’ve been paying attention. Why are you holding back from such a man?”

“I’m not holding back,” said Melanie. “I just went farther with him than I think anybody’s ever gone with anyone.”

Doreen said, “Why don’t you go home, and get yourself cleaned up. Take a bubble bath. Sleep it off. We’ll clean up the abomination downstairs. In the morning, we’ll talk about how you should go about apologizing.”

“Apologizing? For what?”

Jill and Doreen gave Melanie looks of pity.

“I think that’s exactly what you need to think about,” said Jill. “Now, go on.”

“Go!” shouted Doreen, suddenly angry, waving her hands at Melanie, pressing her toward the door to the backyard.

Melanie tried one more time to ask what was going on.

“Get out of here,” cried Doreen, cutting her off. She threw an orange at Melanie, who bolted out of the door just in time.

She went into the backyard. The door slammed behind her.

She collected herself before she got in her car and drove home. She thought that word of what had happened would surely get out. If Jill and Doreen didn’t talk about it, Brandon would. Dave would. Jerry probably would, too. Her humiliation would multiply.

When she arrived home, her mother said, “You’re back early. How did it go?”

“It was fine,” answered Melanie, on the way to her room.

“Any boys?” she asked knowingly.

“No,” said Melanie. “No boys. Only guys.”

But by then her mother had put her earbuds back in. She was listening to a podcast in which Pauly Shore interviewed the vice-chancellor of the Ku Klux Klan.

He asked what it was like to walk a mile in the Klansman’s shoes.

The response he got was revealing.

Melanie went to her room.

She came out of it, eventually.

Back to top ↑