Thomas Maya




Thomas Maya is a Colombian-American writer from New York. His fiction was recently recognized as a finalist for Passages North's 2020 Waasnode Prize and can be found at PANK Magazine; his poetry is available at Harpur Palate. He is at work on a first novel.

Manny and Joel are good friends. They’ve been tight for years, since first meeting in middle school. Now they work together, and they like to finish off shifts by hotboxing one of their cars out in the parking lot—usually late at night after they’ve finished a closer. The lot is a massive stretch of pavement to three sides of the Walmart they work at. The car—almost always Manny’s—is an ’85 Plymouth Horizon, some thirty plus years old, still running well enough to be a sweet first ride for Manny. Especially since it was free: A five-speed hatchback with some kick, and cherry red to boot, it was given to him by his father as an ‘hora de ser un hombre’ gift, whatever his pops meant by that when he dropped the key—hitched to a rabbit foot keychain—into his hand for the first time. Whenever they smoke, they park towards the back corner of the lot, along with a row of for-sale-by-owner jobs, mostly clunkers that sit in the lot night and day because of a friendly arrangement between Walmart’s corporate reps and the local community. To really blend in, to totally disappear, Manny has written up his own FOR SALE signs, posting them in the windows the very second he pulls the car alongside a rust-covered Mazda Miata that’s been parked in the lot for close to a year. Their go-to spot. Then Manny and Joel drop their seats back, low, and—except for the smoke that continuously blooms inside—they become invisible to the world.   

“You roll the ugliest fucking joints,” Manny says as he inspects what Joel has passed him. “You know that?” he adds. When Joel doesn’t answer, Manny looks over and sees that his friend is watching late-coming shoppers pull into the Walmart lot with an intense stare.

“It’s like a mouth,” Joel finally says as he points to the store’s entrance. “A mouth with a gullet. Like a freakin’ huge stomach.”

“Watcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

“Walmart man, it’s like a giant stomach that eats people up and shits them out.”

“Did you smoke already? Without me?” Manny says. “’Cause you sound high as fuck.” He leans close to the steering wheel to light the joint, and once it’s lit, he cups his hand over the small ember-glow of the tip, to hide it from any curious eyes. His father, an Afghan vet, still smokes this way whenever they light up together in their backyard at night. When Manny first asked him about it, the hand covering, his pops had recounted the story of the dead smokers of Nuristan, telling him candidly of the few friends he’d lost to sniper fire a week before the Battle of Wanat, when he’d lost even more friends. His dad, severely wounded in that battle, came home for good a few weeks later. “‘The only thing worth dying for,’” Manny now says to Joel, repeating a snippet of his father’s words, “‘is the right to smoke what you want to smoke, when you want to smoke it.’” Manny says this often, especially when they’re burning trees.

Joel turns to look at him and says, “It’s not just Walmart, man,” raising his hands to signal some grand thought, “it’s like all of corporate America, all this buy-buy-buy-buy-buy bullshit, you know? Swallows people up, swallows them up whole.” When Manny looks at him with a set of playful you’re-bugging-the-fuck-out eyes and zero response, Joel goes on to say, “Swallows up small businesses, too, places just like your dad’s place.”

         “You did fucking smoke with out me—you fuck!” Manny smacks the top of the steering wheel as he laughs, then finishes up with a second, smaller toke. He offers the joint for Joel to take as he holds the toke in, feeling the smoke-tingling warmth as it takes up residence in his lungs. Sitting with that warmth inside him, he wonders if his old man would freak the fuck out if he enlisted the way his pops had enlisted after 9/11.

Joel is still prattling on, his arms moving with excitement. “All of that consumerism type shit, you know, it’s…it’s…it’s—”

“It’s a fucking stomach, I heard you man. You sound looney tunes, you know that, right?” He reaches out even further, puts the joint close to Joel’s face, wiggling it back and forth in his fingers as if he’s holding up a small inverted pendulum, and says, “You want some of this or not?”

Joel plucks it out of his hand and wonders what his older brother Henry would have thought of him smoking so much all the time. Henry had been straightedge all his life, mostly because of the music he’d listened to and who he’d hung out with when listening to that music. Joel remembers how all of Henry’s friends had been part of the Long Island straightedge scene, how they’d spend all their time listening to old school hardcore bands like Minor Threat, Earth Crisis, and Youth of Today. The list of bands—an endless one—is something Joel’s growing more and more familiar with by the day, ever since having inherited his brother’s record collection.

Joel says, “Doesn’t have to be pretty to smoke,” and takes a long drag as he looks down the bridge of his nose to admire what he can see of his own handiwork. He can so easily think up an image of his brother’s hands, covered with the defiant X’s he so often sharpied onto the backside of each, thick black lines that reached from knuckles to wrist bones whenever he was heading out to catch a show.

“There’s my boy,” Manny says before drumming his hands against the steering wheel.

Those few words of Manny’s instantly bring Joel’s brother back from the dead yet again—Henry, the older of the two, would say just that to Joel all the time, so much so that it became a running joke between them. He was a whopping nine years older than Joel, but they were close, Henry and his baby brother, because Henry never moved away from home, not for college, not after he’d finished college, when he’d started his first job in the HR department at a local medical institution. ‘There’s my boy,’ Henry would say to him whenever Joel came home with a hundred on a quiz or test or an A on some kind of report. ‘There’s my boy’ whenever he’d made his bed or cleaned up his room. ‘There’s my boy’ if he ever did Henry a favor, or if he listened to any of their mom or dad’s instructions without being asked a second time. ‘There’s my boy’ whenever he flicked off an unused light or closed the fridge, both of which always got the boys laughing hysterically. But hearing Manny say those words, Joel isn’t laughing now.

“Yo!” Manny says, snapping his fingers twice in Joel’s face. “You stoned already?”

Joel blinks twice and stares out at the entrance again. “Not yet, no,” he says. “I’m not a lightweight like some pansy fuckers I know. How about some music, huh?” he asks as he brings the joint to his lips once more. He thinks again of his brother’s hands, how he’d wanted to hold them at the wake—but the accident hadn’t been kind to his brother’s body, his face.

Manny flicks the car stereo on and digs into his pants pocket for his iPhone. Scrolling through his RECENTLY PLAYED albums, he asks: “Master of Puppets? Ride the Lightning? Justice?” Joel, shaking his head, tries to hold in a half-cough but smoke shoots out his nose, then his mouth, and he’s suddenly coughing with the intensity of someone suffering from a serious bronchitis. Laughing, Manny says, “Fucking amateur hour,” and decides for them on the music. As he drops the iPhone into the center console and leans back further in his seat, a collection of slow but foreboding Flamenco-like guitars strum their way out of the speakers, filling the smoky interior with a sound that, when slowly overcome by electric guitars and mounting drums, erupts into a thrashing song the boys know well.

Over James Hetfield’s insistent voice, Manny says, “Can you fucking believe Tom? That douche.” He turns in his seat to face Joel with his often-used what-the-fuck look as he splays arms to his sides and shrugs. “Not mentioning anything about his moms. With her being sick as she was. Man, I thought we were tight, you know?”

“Yeah,” Joel says, a little lost in thought, a little tinge of the high coming on. This first song off Master of Puppets has been hitting him hard recently, whenever he’s listened to it, specifically because of a single line of lyrics that goes against everything he’s learned about family in the last year of his life. He holds the joint out for Manny and starts singing along, letting the words tumble out as little more than a murmur: “Smashing through the boundaries / Lunacy has found me / Cannot stop the battery / Pounding out aggression / Turns into obsession / Cannot kill the battery / Cannot kill the family / Battery is found in me / Battery / Battery…”

Manny grabs the joint from him and watches his friend singing as he tokes up. He can see Joel’s getting all blubbery in the face and watery in the eyes. He’s been like this a lot lately when they’ve smoked. He’s been like this for a while now. For months and months and months. Ever since—

“Dude lost his mom,” Joel says as he leans forward against the dash, letting his whole upper body splash over in what looks to Manny like some kind of yoga-in-a-tight-space kind of joke. From inside that bubble of splashed-over flesh, Joel says, “That shit must be tough.”

“Of course it’s fucking tough,” Manny says, “I know that, you know that—” And the moment he’s let those words slip from his lips, he feels bad about it, and he senses this quick-flowing regret swelling up inside the car, the same way smoke and music have swelled to fill the interior. He says, “Sorry man, I didn’t mean that.”

“Yes you did,” Joel says as he rights himself up in the seat. “It’s okay, though—I do know what it feels like. Kind of anyway…” His words trail off, leaving some apparent thought unfinished, and he settles back into the seat and stretches his legs out as far as the clipped space of the hatchback affords. Then he says, “But you—do you really know what it feels like?”

Manny doesn’t answer ’cause Joel’s right, he’s not sure how to answer. He takes a smoke and thinks of his mom or dad being dead, then tries to compare that to one of his brothers or sisters being dead. But it’s hard—no, it’s impossible, the thing he’s trying to do, or it feels impossible, anyway, this imagining of the worst in his head, all because he knows they’re never going to die, or at least that’s what it feels like to him. Feels it, knows it, believes it, all because that’s what he’s been made to believe in all his life, to embrace, what he’ll keep embracing, till something comes, which he thinks won’t ’cause of how close death came when it took Joel’s brother’s life. And ’cause of his pop, too.

He reaches across a half foot of empty space and feels the lucky rabbit foot dangling from the ignition and thinks himself and his family the lucky ones. Another something passed along: His pops had thought Joel’s family unlucky, and he’d taken Manny by the shoulders the morning after the accident and said to him, ‘Listen to me—you listen good. We are luckier than that family. You remember that.’ He also remembers his pops, in the backyard over smokes, or elsewhere too, often saying to him various versions of these words: ‘If I didn’t die there, it’s ’cause I wasn’t supposed to die. Hell, this shit here, this shit’s easy. Easy living. And easy living makes dying hard. You remember that and you’ll be just fine.’ Manny’s progression to manhood, he’s slowly come to understand, is what he’s asked to remember by way of his father’s words, his lessons for him.

“You got your moms,” Manny now says, still not wanting to answer Joel’s question. “And your pops. That’s a big difference, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, sure. It’s different. But it’s the same, too.”

Manny takes another drag. The ember flares brighter than it’s been, the dim light falling against the skin of his cupped palm and fingers. As he watches the orange-red make the smoky air into what looks like nighttime blossoms, he imagines his hands sprouting into flowers right as Hetfield sings the line: “Your life burns faster—faster!” He looks over and hears Joel more than sees him; they’ve both starting to disappear in the thickly settled smoke, and his friend is singing along to the music again, muttering out half-sung words the way a dying animal might let out low wails before the coming silence death brings. His eyes are very likely still glassy and distant, Manny knows, the look Joel’s had whenever he’s crawled off to that far away place he goes deep inside himself, in his head somewhere. To get away, to spend time alone, to curl up and sort of play dead, even if they’re hanging, the way he has so often these last nine or ten months.

“Here,” Manny says, passing the joint. He smiles in his half-solicitous way and says, “Hey man, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything. We cool?” Joel remembers how Manny had laughed at something at the funeral home, a half-suppressed snicker that sounded to Joel like cannon fire booming through a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon, how he’d looked over and seen Manny across the room with a mutual friend, smiling into his hand. He remembers Manny’s first smile after his brother’s death, picking him up for work on his first day back, when he’d said something like, ‘It’ll take some time, but things will get better,’ as Joel settled down shotgun in the Plymouth Horizon. Joel can’t stand it when Manny smiles or laughs at moments when people shouldn’t be doing either—even if meant in a somewhat compassionate way. And so of course he can imagine Manny smiling at the worst of moments. He can even imagine him smiling when first learning of a death in his own family. Maybe even when suffering through something similar to what Joel’s had to suffer through, endure—learning that one of his brothers or sisters has been killed in a terrible car crash of some kind. Through his stupid still-present smile, Manny says, “Hey, fuck-face, did you hear me? I’m trying to apologize. We cool or what?”

“Yeah, we’re cool,” Joel says as he brings the spliff to his lips. He tokes on it for what seems like forever, closing his eyes, seeing a shadowed image of his father coming into his room to explain his mother’s screaming, screaming that—at one in the morning—had easily woken up the entire neighborhood. Screaming that had ripped Joel from sleep the second he’d heard his mother’s grief-filled voice, tearing into the silence of what became an endless day, one that will remain for him an unshatterable assemblage of painful memories.

Manny smacks Joel’s knee playfully and says, “Fucking Tom. Causing trouble even now.”

Joel nods, not letting the smoke out of his lungs, not opening his eyes either, recalling the alien voices he’d heard down in the living room trying to console his mother as his father stood over him asking him to get out of bed. Just like Dad, Joel thinks, to let the police—strangers—console his frantic mother, finding something else to keep him busy when his emotions were too much for him to handle. But he remembers his dad’s dismantled face, too, all red and fierce and filled with an inward-ravaging storm, even when seen partially lit by just the hallway light that stammered into the room from behind him.

The music continues to swell, the smoke to bloom, and the space inside the car grows both noisy and quiet as a dark, dull white falls over them like fog. As this fog grows thicker and thicker, they fall into an easy silence and sit back deep into their seats, letting the high take hold. Joel thinks about his parents, their misery these last nine months, his own, and the space of the car seems to expand for him, the door handle and his window suddenly seeming very far away even though they are still in arm’s reach. Manny thinks about what military time would be like, wonders what might make his dad proudest, whether the Army or the Marines, remembers his pops teaching him to start a fire, making the stacked structure of wood full of empty spaces for air to rush through, the lesson coming all of a sudden because of some sitcom they’d been watching together on Nick at Nite. Was it Different Strokes? Was it All in the Family? The Brady Bunch? He can’t remember anything except a campsite scene, people trying to light a fire without knowing how to light one, canned laughter at all the failed starts, and his pops saying something like ‘Fucking idiots’ before taking him out into the backyard to practice being a man. Manny rubs his palms together and enjoys the sound, the feel of it. He rubs his palms together and thinks of sandpaper against wood. Joel remembers a show at Cedar Beach, one of the first times he’d followed his brother into a mosh pit to dance, working up the courage to mimic his brother’s moves when a local band started playing a song he and his brother both really liked—two minutes in, Joel had caught a fist to the face when someone windmilled through the crowd, but when his older brother asked if he needed to stop, Joel had beamed with pride and just kept on dancing, stomping his feet the way his brother always did, but marked by a line of blood that streamed out of his nose. Henry, smiling huge, had shouted the words ‘There’s my boy’ into his ear before they both started dancing again. The song, Joel remembers, was called ‘Shadowboxing.’ The band’s name he can’t quite remember though he knows that the name waits to be found in his brother’s record collection somewhere. Manny thinks up the girl from earlier that day and allows her image, one of curves made for him to caress, to shift into that of Gina Malone, the girl at school he fantasizes about most often. His dreamiest dream girl, he thinks as he continues rubbing his palms together. Joel can’t help but see his brother’s record collection now, all seven crates stacked in his own closet at home—he can’t help but imagine that stack like a standing coffin, like the kind of pinewood box he’s seen on westerns hundreds of times over (whenever there’s been a shootout), which was the kind of movie he used to love watching with Henry because of how much Henry would make fun of the so-easily predictable plots. Thinking about Henry’s favorite, Deadwood, he wonders what it would look like to put all those records in a coffin, wonders if they should have been buried alongside his brother. Buried with him, perhaps, he thinks as he remembers Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday, remembers how his brother loved saying Doc’s catchphase over and over again, sometimes butchering the words purposefully: ‘I’m your huckleberry.’ I’m your huckleberry. I’m your huckle…I’m your berry…I’m your brother…I’m your hucklebrother...I’m your—

When he gets to places like this, places that are dark and dreary and hardly recognizable, he’s found redirecting helps. Even when he’s high. And, as if Joel’s been reading Manny’s thoughts, he says, “Hey, you remember that girl today?”

“Which one?” Manny snaps his fingers for the joint and, with the last of the spliff pinched deftly to his lips, moves an image of Gina, naked, into some high-shelved recess of his mind. His is a recessed mind filled with many such trophies.

“The one, the girl, you know she needed, who wanted help with the sexy-time aisle.”

“Oh, yeah, her—little Miss Sexy Time. She was fucking hot.” As he says this, they both hear the clamor of an engine racing down Yaphank Road, the main drag that fronts the Walmart. Manny sits up and cranes his face forward, close enough to the windshield to be able to see through the wall of smoke they’ve built up together. A yellow sports car whips into the main entrance, the engine chirping as the person takes the turn the way a racecar driver would take it, followed by a gurgling rev that is loud over the music in the Plymouth, even from the distant hiding space they’ve chosen at the back of the lot. “What about her?” he asks Joel as he eases back into his seat.

“She wasn’t there for condoms.”

Manny takes one last puff, but the roach is dead so he crushes it into his ashtray, leaving it there along with other bee-sized remnants. “Yeah, yeah, you told me. She was like knocked up,” he says with a childish giggle. “Right?”

“No…no…”—Joel shakes his head vigorously—“not necessarily. I’m not so sure, anyway.”

The distant car’s engine gurgles one last time, then rattles silent. And a near-endless instrumental intro for ‘Disposable Heroes’ is shot through with the earliest of Hetfield’s belted-out lyrics. A car alarm trills loudly, stabbing towards them through the night.

“You said it yourself—she was there for a pregnancy test.”

“So what? That doesn’t have to mean she’s pregnant.”

Manny sighs with impatience. “What’s your fucking point?”


“Well what, fuck-face? Get on with—”

“What if someone like her got like pregnant the very second my brother died?”

Hearing this, Manny is jolted to life in his chair, a quick jostling flail of arms and hips and legs that comes from his having to process Joel’s question the way someone might process a baseball that’s batted straight for one’s body, or worse, one’s head. “Fuck,” he says when his right knee knocks against the steering column. Then he turns towards Joel and, to the fogged-over figure sitting beside him, says, “Really? Like really really? Like what the fuck, man?”

“What if that’s what happens?” Joel says. “What if the very second we die, we get—I don’t know—thrown back in somewhere else, like Quantum Leap style, you know?”

“Dude,” Manny says as he pats at his pockets, searching for something. “I don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about. Not a fucking clue.” He shakes his head and keeps searching for whatever he’s lost.

“Reincarnation, fuck-face,” Joel says before handing Manny back his eighth. “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m saying.”

Manny shakes his head some more and starts rolling another joint. He keeps shaking his head as he crumbles bud onto what he can see of a neatly held sheet of rolling paper. At some point, his head stops moving, and he’s got his eyes pinned to his task, and he speaks very slowly, saying, “Seriously. Serious-fucking-ly. Even if she was preggers, that’s what you think about when you see quality T & A?”

Joel doesn’t answer. Over the speakers, one Metallica album is replaced by another, this one—…And Justice for All—starts with the sound of a far-off and wheezing electric guitar that builds, closing some infinite distance, before surging into another explosion of frenetic energy.

“Seriously, Joel. I’m fucking super serious here—you see a girl either of us would love to fuck silly—I’m talking primo pussy—and you, you’re off thinking of your brother? Your dead fucking brother—” He lifts his work to his mouth, licking the rolling paper as if it were an envelope ready to be sealed. “You really telling me that—that anytime you see pussy you think of death?”

Joel still doesn’t answer. He shifts his gaze towards where the Walmart entrance was, but everything outside the car is lost to the billowing white cloud within, just as everything inside is, too: all swallowed up in the charcoal-white bloom that engulfs them.

Manny, with careful control, tightens the paper around the neat pile of weed he’s shaped into a channel, rolling it between both his thumbs, his forefingers, using his pointers to smartly press down the wet end of the paper; and the joint—nearly as perfect as a purchased cigarette—materializes in his fingers. “Voila,” he says, offering it to Joel.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“Come on, princess. I rolled you the prettiest joint in the world,” Manny says, holding it out for Joel again. “The prettiest fucking joint ever,” he adds, once again flicking it back and forth close to his friend’s face.

Joel, shifting his face away from the dancing joint, flicks upwards with a backhanded swipe of his arm, says, “I said no thanks,” and his hand smacks Manny’s own with a loud thwack.

Hetfield sings: “Fire to begin whipping dance of the dead / Blackened is the end / To begin whipping dance of the dead…”

“Fucking fine,” Manny says. He lights the joint and thinks of the time he punched Joel in the face. “More for me,” he says, pushing hushed-words out with almost zero air as he holds the toke in.

They are quiet for forty or so seconds, listening to the song without speaking. Manny, feeling the throbbing force of the music against his chest, breathes in heavily and is overcome by more of the same memory, of Joel calling him a pussy at exactly the wrong moment, just about an hour after his pops had leveled that same word against him. They had been talking about trying to score blow for the first time, about who to score from, and Joel had mentioned Manny’s dad’s employee, Roger, a forty-something who obviously loved getting high off all kinds of shit. When Manny said no to that idea, said he didn’t want his pops catching wind of it, Joel had said, ‘What the fuck? Why you being such a pussy?’ In those words, Manny had heard his old man’s voice from early that afternoon: ‘Only pussies take art classes. That you? You going to be the only pussy in the family?’ It had been the one and only time Manny had mentioned the desire to go to art school to his father, to study illustration or painting.

 Joel now says, “Why don’t you like talking about death?”

Manny doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes to all the smoke. Having heard Joel use the word ‘pussy’ that day, he’d lost his temper—as he’d turned to clock his friend in the face, he’d yelled ‘Don’t ever fucking call me that!’ He remembers the feeling of rage that had come over him in that distant second so well, so clearly, all because—for some reason he can’t quite explain—he’s feeling that same rage this moment.

“Stop,” he says.

“Stop what?” Joel asks.

“Stop causing trouble.”

“What? What the fuck, Manny? How am I causing trouble?”

Manny shoulders the door open, first a sliver, then all the way open; smoke oozes out with the cracked door, then balloons upwards and out in a rush with the door yawning wide. He swings his feet out of the car, shifting his body sideways as he drops his sneakers to the parking lot. They feel heavy as bricks but fragile, too—or sensitive, in how he can feel each individual toe cocooned within the cotton/polyester blend of his socks, how he feels the padded support of his soles. He relights the joint, smokes again, and standing, he realizes how stoned he’s gotten, how stoned he is. “That’s how the story always goes,” he says as he turns back to the car. He stumbles backwards slightly, catches himself before falling, and standing firm again, sees the car as if from halfway across the parking lot. The door is open and smoke is dribbling out into the vast expanse of night all around. And it looks as if the interior of the car is on fire. With the overhead light on, he can make out a figure sitting in that smoldering mass, and over the rush of music he knows so well, he can hear his friend calling his name. The music and the voice seem to be wrestling with a rush of wind that’s once again picked up. He can feel what feels like beach sand whipping against his jeans at his ankles. He suddenly hears what sounds like a highway brimming with activity, but spinning around, he sees a near-empty street, just two or three passing cars off in the distance. He peers at the glaring lights of the Walmart entrance, then spins back and stumbles to one side. He can hear what he thinks is his name. He leans forward and realizes he’s actually quite close to the car. He hears Joel quite clearly as a song goes dark as a candle when its wick is snuffed out.  

“Get in the fucking car, you idiot.”

“That’s the trouble,” Manny says.

“Get in, you fuck,” Joel says.

“To begin whipping dance of the dead,” Manny responds. “What the fuck does that even mean?”

“Dude, come on,” Joel says. “I’m your huckleberry. I’ll help you out. Now get the fuck in.”

Manny can see Joel falling to the floor, the way he had with that punch, when it landed against his chin. His dad would have called his friend a pussy if he’d have seen it happen. The punch, the quick fall, the crying. Blubbery waterworks of the worst kind, really.

Joel’s face appears out of the last bit of car-captured smoke, like an actor’s head popping through the curtains on a theater stage. Like a jack-o’-lantern balanced on the railing of a porch somewhere out across America. Out in the dark, waiting for some delinquent to smash it to smithereens on the pavement, just outside the house it briefly called home. “Get in the fucking car, jack-ass,” the head says to Manny.

A week after the punch, Joel’s older brother had been killed in a car accident right across the street from Manny’s dad’s muffler shop. Another punch in the face, followed by a longer fall, and by crying that might not ever stop—not for Joel, anyway. When Manny had come home from school that day, his pops, home early, already knew all about the accident, the death. Before going into his fatherly spiel about luckiness, about their lucky family, Manny let loose words that felt necessary to share, telling his pops all about it, nearly crying as he went into details about his friend’s family’s tragedy. The smack, a firm and painful one that left all of the right side of his face tingly and red for hours, came halfway through Manny’s telling of that story. After he’d hit his boy in the face, Manny’s father had said, ‘Don’t you ever fucking cry. You are not a pussy, you hear me. I will not raise any of my boys to be pussies. You hear me?’ This was followed, of course, by his lesson on luck.

“Get in the car, Manny. Get in, you’re going to get us in trouble. Come on, man.”

“You’re the pussy,” Manny screams. “You hear me? You’re the fucking pussy, you’re the biggest pussy there is, you hear me? You hear me?” He is hollering now, howling. Not like wind, but as wind; I am the wind, he thinks, still howling.

“Yeah, I hear you, now get in. Get the fuck in or else.”

Hearing this, Manny starts laughing, laughing so hard, he falls to his knees and bowls over so that he’s laughing with his face to the pavement. “Or else,” he says. “Or fucking else,” he says again. He can hear Joel still, pleading with him to get up, pleading with him to get back in the car. He is pleading still. Four and a half years later, he’ll be in this same position, bowled over on his knees, praying for his life on the dirt-covered floor of some room he’s been kept in for close to a year. He’ll hear the sound of what he imagines to be a man with a gun standing over him, the tiny sound of the spring-loaded metal tab of the hammer falling into place just before the bullet falls into place. The sound like a paperclip falling to the floor. Just before the trigger is pulled. If the trigger is pulled. If he dies in captivity, he’ll never know what’s become of his childhood friend, Joel. If he survives the ordeal, if he’s released by his captors, if he makes it home to his little corner of the States, he’ll learn about Joel’s fate: the emotional punch that kept coming for him year after year, those years of anguish that led to years of depression, the rope he chose, the way he left the attic stairs open, the light left on, the knot he tied, the depth of his fall. The death that followed behind the death that preceded.

The difficult talks that might have helped—

Keep him from—

The fall—

© The Acentos Review 2020