Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 10 • Summer 2004 • Featured Writer • Fiction

Next To Nothing

Keith Banner

Tuesday morning, and you can see me out front of the Ponderosa Steakhouse, changing the sign. It's hotter than hell. I'm wearing my management clip-on necktie, short sleeved shirt, brown pants. Tall and lanky and going bald, I use a long pole with a suction cup on it to get the letters up there, but they keep dropping like dead birds. I have a tattoo on my upper left arm. Guess what it says? "Never surrender." I'm spelling: 8/30 IS OUR LAST DAY OF BUSINESS. THANKS FOR YOUR PATRONAGE.

I'm not even sad about us closing down. I don't get sad. Every evening, I take four Tylenol PMs, conk out, wake up to three or four cups of black coffee. I have some caffeine gum on hand at all times, a prescription antidepressant I take on and off.

My brother-in-law's inside the restaurant right now, pulling stuff off the back shelves: cans of corn and soup and baked apples that used to go onto the salad bar. I pulled some strings and got him hired on to relocate stock to the Pondo that's still open in Dayton. He got laid off last week. He's scrawny but with big arms and the dumbest, prettiest eyes, a thin-lipped mouth with a mustache you want to wipe off with a paper towel. His name's Ron. My sister married him in 1991, and they have two kids, the nephews I try to avoid. One of the nephews is slow and likes to start fires. The other one is good at science and computers.

I happen to be a little sweet on Ron. Sounds pretty messed up, but that's me. I tend to live that way. Actually, I've been falling for him since I had cancer two years back and had to move in with my sister's family to be taken care of. Lung cancer. (And yes I still smoke.) My sister was standoffish throughout that whole cancer ordeal, like she wished I would just go off somewhere and die. But Ron treated me like some long last pal he wanted to make sure he saved. I'd get home from chemo and since he was working nights he'd be up and he'd roll me some weed and we'd get high in the basement and talk about Led Zeppelin or Cheech and Chong or Friday the Thirteenth. You know, our childhoods.

Right now I concentrate so hard the words I do manage to get up there on the sign don't make sense any more. But in forty-five minutes I have completed my task, sweat-soaked and shaky. I walk into Pondo's backdoor with the suction-cup pole and the milk-crate of big red plastic leftover letters. Ron comes out with a cardboard box of canned baked beans.

"I've got one side out. I'm running it over right now." He smiles at me. I smile back and throw the pole and letters into the back room, grab a roll of paper towels to sop up my sweaty forehead. My cell phone goes off, but it's just a hang-up. I go back outside.

"You're good at moving stuff," I say.

He's pushing that box of beans into his big rusty Ford truck, the one his dad gave him.

"Yeah," he says, and I hear a sort of pride in his voice that would probably make my sister pissed at him. They just separated last week. Lots and lots of reasons.

"Hey," he says, and I walk closer to him. He lights a cigarette, and I light one up too. "How's that dog?"

"I'm afraid I'm gonna have to get rid of him soon. I swear to God."

Ron laughs, "I'm sorry, but maybe you should have seen that one coming, buddy."

"I know, I know." I laugh too. It is pretty funny. About six months back, I adopted a greyhound dog. I heard about the whole thing on the news -- this SAVE THE GREYHOUNDS campaign. These evildoers raise greyhounds to race at a track over in Indiana, but as soon as the dogs can't race anymore they're killed. I saw that on TV and I just burst into tears: glassy-eyed greyhounds in cages waiting to be shot up with lethal injections. I mean come on.

So I just called the agency that does the saving of the dogs and they hooked me up with Sebastian (that's what I named him, and I still don't know why). He didn't look so big out in the muddy field where I got him, behind the pound. He did look kind of odd, though. His bicycle-seat-shaped head with devilish eyes and a curved-in body. I remember putting him into my Tercel, in the backseat, how he just seemed to love being in a car. He didn't bark once, until we got to my apartment.

"I was hoping Janet might take him. Someone to replace you," I say. The smoke goes into my lungs like a plug into a socket.

Ron laughs at my little joke. We're always joking.

"Yeah. That's all I ever was to her -- some stupid runt dog. We'll get back together, though. I'm pretty sure. She's just in one of her moods."

True -- she's always kicking him out, but this time it seems more permanent. Like tomorrow she and the nephews are going on a vacation they had planned as a family, Disney World and the whole works, with money from their income tax check. But then Ron lost his job at the warehouse and he started getting high again and no Disney World for him. He could go to hell for his vacation -- that's Janet talking right there.

I put my cigarette out, look at Ron standing there in the sunshine, pit stains and a smile. Something pathetic in him speaks directly to the pathetic in me -- the sense of optimism it takes to not have a job and yet be able to belly laugh at Home Improvement and eat a whole pizza and smoke dope and play on your sons' X-Box all day.

"I'm going over to the Dayton place and drop this off."


"Hey," Ron says. "Give me a hug."

That's something Ron does. Hugs people.

As he hugs me, he whispers right into my ear, "Thanks, buddy, for getting me this job."

He walks off like he's embarrassed. I go back into the place. We've already started closing off part of the dining room. The salad bar is completely shut down now, like an abandoned yacht, scarred-up sneeze-shield and empty sockets where the plastic containers for dressing used to slide in. Some of the décor is off the walls. The owner is a big fat homo, Jack Stroganavski, but we all call him Jack Stroganoff, sometimes Beef Stroganoff, sometimes just Beef or Stroke. He owns the Pondo in Dayton, too.

The day Jack told me the place had finally and totally gone under, about two months back, I was closing, and he was, as usual, coming onto me in the meat locker. I was counting frozen T-bones and New York strips. He was standing in the doorway, against the thick plastic flaps inside the door, in his Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops. I guess he thinks being rich means dressing like a drunk tourist.

"It's done. I gotta close this one. I mean, this place is bleeding money honey." He had a big frown on. "All the goddamn Applebee's and TGIFriday's and Cookers out by the bypass killed us."

"I know," I said, but I felt that sense of having everything pulled out from under me. And there the frozen T-bones were in their box. I'm quite thorough when I'm doing inventory -- I pull out every last piece of meat to make sure. Cannot stand coming up short.

Then there's Jack Stroganoff right in my face in the freezer, big-bellied Jimmy Buffet wannabe who drives a Hummer, Arnold Swazzenegger's favorite vehicle. In my personal space there.

"If you don't mind the drive, I can offer you management at the Dayton store." He licked his lips almost like a joke.

"I'll think about it."

But then he was crying. He was touching my face.

"Can you tell the employees for me?"

He kissed me. I realized he might be the loneliest person on earth. Then he tongued me and I had to stop. He laughed and walked backwards, wiping the tears from his face.

"You kill me," he said in a sing-song way.


Sebastian may have swallowed my cell phone. I can't find it, and he doesn't look like he feels good, big gray dog on a sad beige sofa. The apartment is the same as usual, total disarray with the smell of dog. I dial my cell phone number and listen to Sebastian's stomach. Ron answers.



"Yeah, bud. You left your cell phone in the stock room. I came back after my last haul and got it for you. It's on its way. I know you and your phone." He laughed.

"I thought I'd lost the g-d thing again," I said, laughing too. The thought of him coming over made me feel like life might sometimes be fair after all. "I was going into cell phone withdrawal."

"Cool. I'm on my way. You want me to stop and get a pizza?"


"See you in twenty or thirty."

The window-unit air conditioner works wonders in here -- nice chill, and after I straighten up the place I sit back and drink some white wine with Soap.net on. It's about 8 PM. After work today, I went and interviewed at Chi-Chi's. Not for management, for waiting tables. They offered me the position right then and there, and I took it, too. No more responsibility, except for myself. No more counting meat. Just tips. We can celebrate that.

Sebastian comes over and tries to do his tiny-dog-curl-up thing on my lap, knocking the shade off a lamp in the process. I just let him have his way with me. I think about when I was sick back then, staying at my sister's house, and her trying to ignore me even though she was driving me to and from chemo sessions. Dumping me out in her driveway after, and then I walked in and there's Ron with the biggest doobie in Clermont County. This one time we got so high I didn't even puke once, and me with all my hair coming out, and him with his sweet, sleepy eyes, watching Scream DVDs, the Sick Fag and the Low Achieving Husband.

"She thought you had AIDS. I think she still thinks it," Ron told me when he was putting in Scream 2.

"No. Not AIDS. Salems. I got a bad case of the Salems." (I mean I did like four packs a day at one point.)

"She doesn't like you being so gay," Ron said. He laughed at that. "I don't give a shit, but she sure does."

"I think she's a closet dyke myself," I said.

"Don't think so," Ron said. "She loves sex. I'm not kidding. That gal could go all night." The grin he had on made it look like he was almost afraid of her.

"Enough," I said.

"She loves you, though."

"You think?"

Ron came over and sat down next to me, his body closer than usual.

"I don't want you to die. She doesn't either. You're a good person. You have a good heart, Den."

Those four sentences took hold like little hands clawing into dirt. I could feel myself being pulled out of that dirt by those hands. I didn't say anything to Ron. I didn't tell him that his kindness might have been the main reason I was staying alive. That plus removing half a lung and the chemo and a few trips to radiation-land.


Soon as Ron shows up, Janet calls me on my cell phone. Ron gives it over to me.

"Why in the hell does Ron have your cell phone?"

"He found it at work... So what's up?"

"I really did not need to hear his voice," she says. I hear Brandon in the background, the slow one. He's yelling something about wanting to eat where they have the Tombraider 2 toy.

"I'm sorry. So what's up?"

"Does he talk about me?"

I look over at Ron. He's opening the pizza box on the coffee table, getting himself a slice. There's some music video with Pink in it on the TV. He just sits there, and all he's thinking about is pizza and Pink and pot, you can tell. The three Ps.


"Look. Forget it. Doesn't matter. He's out. The reason I called you is I want you to house-sit for us. Tammy was gonna do it but she has some gallbladder thing -- don't ask. You can house-sit, right?"

"Can I bring Sebastian?"

"Devil dog? I guess. But he has to stay outside."


"We're leaving tomorrow morning. You still got a key?"


"Well we're leaving at eight, so come over about then, and I'll give you the key. Love you." She says that last part like she's just gotten through a choking fit at a dinner table and she's apologizing to everybody.

"Love you, too."

She's gone. I go over and get a slice and sit in the La-Z-Boy, and Ron's got the remote. He's smoking a joint now. He looks like a cross between Bambi and Burt Reynolds when he smokes weed.

"She ask about me?" he says.

"Yeah. She wanted to know if you were talking about her."

"What did you say?"

"Sometimes. Me and Sebastian are going to house-sit."

He looks hurt, like she should have asked him to house-sit.

"I miss her and the boys," Ron says, eyes closed.

"I bet."

He gets up and gives me the doobie. He shuts the TV off and starts looking through my CDs on the floor.

"I hate where I'm staying," he says. "Fucking Roach Motel."

Sebastian sits down on the couch with a loud sad yawn. His face looks worried, and he lets out a couple barks, and then closes his face down like a light bulb. I go down on the floor with the joint and give it back to Ron.

"You got any Fleetwood Mac?"


When I reach over to grab the vinyl carrying case I keep all my CDs in, I graze the hair on his arm. I find Fleetwood Mac. It's "You Make Loving Fun." I let the pot worm up into my brain, let myself get hungry and eat more pizza. Ron sits up on the floor.

"I don't want to go back to that motel." He looks like a little kid. "I'd love to see Brandon and Skyler having a good time at Disney World. First time they've been able to go, and here I am. I just feel like I'm letting them down."

"Janet's just a bitch."

"No. I'm a bastard." He laughs then. Gets a piece of pizza. "Did you know I have a DUI now?" He laughs again.


"We tried to keep it a secret, but you know -- it's public record, so they fired me at the warehouse cause I'm uninsurable, and do you know how fucking hard it is to get a job with a DUI? Don't tell your boss. I'm driving that stock around for him without a damn license."

"I won't. We're paying you out of the drawer anyway," I say.

I move away from him. Sebastian gets up and goes over and sniffs the pizza, helps himself to a bite. I pull him off the pizza and lock him in my bedroom where he will more than likely destroy the bedspread and pillows. When I come back, Ron is asleep on the floor. I look down at his face in the light from the stereo. His eyes look knotted like two big knuckles. His mouth is twisted in and wet. I kick his ankle softly. His eyes open.

"Better get on the couch," I say. "Your back will hurt like hell in the morning if you sleep on that floor."

He coughs. "Sure." He reaches up and I grab his hand and pull him from the floor. He dives into the couch.

"Goddamn. I'm sleepy," he says. "Thanks."

"For what?"

But he's out again.


Janet and the boys are ready to go that next morning. I pull in with Sebastian going off in the backseat. They live in a pretty nice neighborhood right off 562, behind a Kroger's. Rundown suburban two-stories with small yards and everybody owns a dented-up minivan. The boys are dressed in new shorts and flip-flops and Old Navy t-shirts. They're already in the van. Janet's in a big sundress to cover up how much weight she's gained. She's the big breadwinner, though -- with her job at Lane Bryant, chief bill-collector. Get her on the phone, she will make you pay.

I get Sebastian out, hold him by his leash, but he still manages to jump up on the minivan, and Brandon, the slow one, sticks his arms out trying to grab Sebastian's head.

"Mother fucker!" Brandon yells.

"Shut up," Skyler says. He's sitting in the front passenger seat, rolling his eyes.

Sebastian barks and jumps and I pull back on the leash and run him to the back yard, to the gate. I tie his leash to a low tree limb for the time being. I go back upfront. Janet tells both boys that this is going to be a fun trip, but she's still trying to get over their dad, so they better be on the best behavior. She has kinky, newly permed hair and purple sunglasses.

"Right, Denny? Tell them."

I look in the windshield and smile. "You better obey her," I say.

Brandon is giving us the finger. He gets ornery when he has something to look forward to. Skyler looks back at him and gives us the finger too, like out of solidarity, even though most of the time he can't stand Brandon, either.

"Stop it," Janet says, but she starts laughing, and I laugh too. They make a big show of their middle fingers, wagging them and shaking them.

Janet looks over at me, and gives me the key.

"Don't you let him come over here, you hear me?" she whispers. "He tell you about the DUI?"

"Last night."

She laughs.

"What are you -- his new best friend?"

"Maybe his only."

Janet gets into the car, and the boys have turned the radio to the rap station. She starts it, and looks out at me.

"I got you some of them Lean Cuisines we like," she says.


She pulls out, and I go back to make sure Sebastian's okay. The leash is off the limb, and he's heading right to the rusted fence in back. I go get him and try to calm him down. When I finally get him to stop galloping I turn and see Ron standing in the middle of the yard. He's in shorts and a tank-top and tennis shoes, and he has a great big stainless-steel coiled spike in his right hand.

"He'll need to be tied up to something, right? I bet he can jump over that damn fence," Ron says, business-like.

"Yeah. Thanks. I tied him to a tree, but it didn't work."

All the grass out here is pretty well scorched. There's a pile of action figures next to an overturned barbecue grill. The sun's beating down. He goes to the garage and gets a spade and hacks out a place to put the spike, under a tree from shade. I hold onto Sebastian. He's jerking back and forth. I have such a feeling of hatred for Sebastian sometimes, like he is my curse, but then I'll look down at his face and he'll seem almost innocent. But he always knows which fucking buttons to push. He's slobbering now.

"Try it out," Ron says.

I drag him over to the spike, and hook his leash up to it. He immediately strains against the spike. It holds.

"Good job," I say.

"You eat breakfast?"

"Not yet."

We walk back to the sliding glass doors and into the kitchen, which Janet always keeps spotless. Ron makes omelets. I sit and watch him, feeling guilt because of what Janet said. I look out the sliding glass doors. Sebastian is lying on the ground like he's been given a shot.

"Here you go," Ron says, serving me the omelet. It smells buttery and unreal.

As I fork the eggs into my mouth, I look over at Ron, and he's looking at me, shell-shocked, like the truth is visiting his brain all of a sudden.

"It's over," he says. He swallows.


"My life." He smiles.

"Shut up," I say and laugh.

I get up with my empty plate.

"You know what Janet calls me?" Ron says. He's up now.


"A drama queen."

We both laugh and put our plates into the sink like two obedient boys with their mother watching. We go down to the basement where Ron's stereo is, the big one with the huge speakers he didn't take with him. Down here it's almost cold. The floor is carpeted in beige wall to wall. There's a black vinyl sofa and a poster of Pearl Jam scotchtaped to warped paneling. I hear Sebastian outside barking. Ron goes over to his stereo and turns it on. I lie down on the couch. Fleetwood Mac again, not that loud. The AC kicks on, a hiss and a belch, and Ron moves my legs over so he can sit on the couch. I go down on the floor in front of him. I'm shaking.

"Oh man," Ron whispers.

I unzip him. Ron lifts his ass up so I can get at his pants. I lean up on top of him and kiss him deep. Then a song goes into a song. Sebastian barks and stops. We make the sounds you make when you fuck in a basement.

When we're through, he goes up and does dishes. I stay down here for a little bit. My head is surrounded in a buzz. Finally I go up, and he's in the living room, the one Janet makes no one use, the way Mom used to do it, the furniture brittle and precious. The lamps are gold angels. He's just standing in the middle of that room, his face as plain as an outer-space alien's.

"I'm taking mental pictures," he says, all intense. "Of every room in this house."

"She'll take you back," I say.

Ron just walks out the front door.


Jack's in tonight with me, while I count money in the office.

"I ordered a keg," he says.

There's just not enough room in the office for a big guy like Jack, so he stands half in and half out, hovering like a magic genie.

"We'll have to watch out. Shane and Darlene aren't 21 yet. You invited them right?"

Jack smiles, "Of course."

"Can't let minors get drunk, okay?" I'm putting bills into paper binders, filling out a deposit slip. Of course it was dead tonight. There's only four days left now. Jack's having a party the last night we're open at his mansion on the hill in Coventry Courts in Chesterfield. Tonight, he's wearing a tan jogging suit with sandals. Just had his hair cut, so he looks like an obese businessman in Bermuda.

"You given any thought to my offer?"

"What offer?"

"Management at the Dayton store."

"I don't think I'm going to take it."

I look at Jack's face, and he's trying to keep it cool.

"So what are you going to do?"

I tap in some numbers into the calculator, and the little paper receipt shoots out.

"I'm going to work at Chi-Chi's."

Jack laughs, all hurt and pissed.


I stand up, zip up the deposit bag. "Excuse me. I gotta close out the drawer."

He follows me to the cash register. There's a smell out here of ancient mop water and total exhaustion, burnt meat and old walls. Shane, the head cook who's worked here since he was sixteen, is outside waiting for his ride -- a cute kid with a burr-cut who got arrested last year for drugs in school, and even though he went to the juvie hall for a month, Jack let him have his job back when he got out.

"I'm gonna be a waiter there," I say.

"Shit," Jack says, flabbergasted. "You'll make next to nothing, Denny. I swear to God. I'll give you a raise. You're the best manager I've had."

He's in my face.

"I just want to simplify things for a while."

He laughs again. "Well just move in with me then," he says. It's a joke and it's not.

Shane's ride comes, his grandma in a station wagon. I see the taillights disappear past the strip mall. It's one of those half-foggy August nights, and outside, locking up, holding the deposit bag, I feel happy to be alive, buzzing still from what I did with Ron, even though I know it's trashy. All good things are.

Jack follows me to the night deposit at the bank. After he said that stuff about moving in with him, I just laughed and now when I put the bag into the slot at First National, he honks his horn and tells me to come to his car.

"Let's get a drink," he says.

"I'm too tired."

He likes me to tell him no. That's the way this shit works I know, even though I've never had anybody in hot pursuit of me like this. I don't want to be around Jack most of the time, and yet for a few seconds out in the bank parking lot, with a bat zooming in and out of a streetlight above a Pizza Hut, I feel like I deserve his love because I'm a good person deep down. And I want him to know I'm thankful, but I can't say it. And I know, maybe, this is what Ron feels for me.

"You sure?"


"Well I'll see you tomorrow probably."


There's that yellow-green Hummer pulling out onto Route 562.


Then Sebastian's missing.

The spike Ron put into the ground to hold his leash didn't hold. It's there in the grass, its coiled bottom caked with mud. Ron's standing above it, smoking a cigarette. I light one up and feel the pain I feel at night when I smoke.

"Oh God, Denny, I am so fucking sorry man," he says. "I went to my lawyer's office and you know, finished up what I could at Pondo and I went and ate. Came back and he was gone right over the fence. I've been all over the neighborhood."

The sorrow in his face isn't about a dog. Deep down I don't really care about Sebastian missing -- I do sort of, but I was going to have a find a place for him anyway, and in that line of thinking I get choked up and try to hide it. I never really loved that dog did I? I saw myself saving him from being killed, but that was the only love I had for him, the love of saving his life. After that, I wanted him to disappear.

I look at Ron, and Ron goes, "Fuck." He's biting his left thumbnail really bad.

"Maybe he'll come back. He's pretty smart," I say.

"Maybe," Ron says. "I'm so sorry."

"That's okay. He'll probably come back."


We do it again in the house around 1:30 in the morning. We do it in his and Janet's bedroom this time. He wants me to fuck him, and I do. It hurts him, but he wants it. I'm thinking he wants to be hurt because he's such a loser, losing dogs and his driver's license and his family and his mind all at the same time. But when I fuck him I also can feel him come out of his body in a way. Maybe the pain is what he needs, and I go slow, so slow it's almost like we aren't doing it, just pretending.

After, he gets up without a word. He goes to the kitchen and I hear the microwave bleep, then the sound of popcorn, the smell of it, and I'll be damned if he doesn't burn it.


The Ponderosa Steakhouse on Patterson Boulevard is now officially shut down. But there's Jack's party to go to tonight. I've let the three employees go home early to get ready. I change my clothes in the Pondo bathroom, come back out, giving the gutted dining room one last look. This is your life kiddo, and of course I think about Ron in the psyche ward. He tried to kill himself the day Janet and the kids got back from Disney. In the basement, with a bottle of Janet's sleeping pills. She found him, saw the note, called 911.

I arrived in the emergency room, after a very pissed-off Janet called me, just in time to see Ron puke up the charcoal they had given him to absorb what drugs were left after the stomach pumping. Janet left the boys at a neighbor's house. She was sitting in the ER waiting room, still in the stupid bright lavender Minnie Mouse sweatshirt she had gotten herself as a souvenir.

"Why did you let him in the house? I took his key. I know you were the one who let him in the house. I knew he was going to pull something like this. He is so damn manic." She rolls he eyes.

"I'm sorry. Is he going to live?"


She picked up a tattered old Newsweek off an end table, started flipping through it. There was an old man moaning across the room, holding his arms like he was holding a baby in it. Janet looked up at me.

"He's just about worthless," she said. "I mean, he is the father of my kids, and I love him -- but you can't live with him. Especially now."

"I know."

She looked down at the Newsweek, like it might have an answer in it to this problem. Even then, in the waiting room, feeling woozy and stupid and guilty, I still saw Ron in my head that way I always did, like some long lost love of mine from a dream. That voice when I was so sick I could barely see, that voice hovering above Bob Barker's and the music from Love Boat on TV Land: "You remember the chest-busting scene in Alien? Did that not fucking blow your mind?"

A fat bald male nurse came out and said, "He wants to see Denny. He asked if Denny was here."

Janet shook her head, still glaring at Newsweek, but then she looked at me as I stood up, gave me the evil eye. She knew exactly what Ron and me had done. She wasn't mad or anything, just disgusted.

"Go on," she whispered to herself. "Go baby him. I'm sick of it."

Ron was grinning like he'd just played a silly little joke on everyone, with black lips from the charcoal they'd given him to absorb what couldn't be sucked out, in a paisley hospital gown, naked underneath, tubes coming out from a catheter and from his neck.

"I ain't got insurance," he said.

"Who does?" I said.

He laughed.

"I like you," he said.

He spat some of the black shit out of his mouth. There was a TV going, music from an infomercial. The walls were scuffed-up beige. I could smell pee and whatever they use in hospitals to hide the smell of pee. My stomach hurt. I wanted to kiss him.

"I like you, too" is what I said.


There is an END OF THE UNIVERSE cake in Beef Stroganoff's house, on his big dining room table. A million-dollar mansion on a hill in a part of the county that's got a bunch of brand new, huge homes. Jack not only owns a restaurant. He has also made a killing manufacturing the speed they sell in little glow-in-the-dark packages next to the cash register at your local convenience store. All the lights are on, and there's all these old-looking cars parked at odd angles. Inside the mansion are California-colored walls and leather furniture and paintings of swimming pools. Black balloons and a cardboard tombstone with PONDEROSA 1975 -- 2002 RIP on it.

Jack's in the back of the kitchen, making Bloody Marys. Right from the start, I can tell he's trying to seduce little Shane -- that's just what lonely fat business owners do. Jack has on a maroon velour jogging outfit and leather sandals.

"Denny!" he yells, cutting off a stalk of celery.

"I made it."

Somebody is playing "Last Dance" by Donna Summer on a boom-box, all the tired employees drinking and laughing in Jack's living room. Nobody dances. Everybody smokes.

"Yes, you did. Hey Shane, hon, could you take this out to Phyllis?"

Shane laughs, "Sure." He has that black buzz cut, camouflage shorts, a t-shirt with a big 3 with angel wings on it.

"I want to talk to you," Jack says. "Come on."

Drunker than hell, Jack opens the backdoor to the sight of a luxurious built-in pool with lights at the bottom, glowing like a spaceship that's been inserted into concrete. There's no one out here as of yet. Jack walks directly next to the pool's edge, drinking from his tumbler of Bloody Mary. He does a little balancing beam act for a second.

"I'm giving you one last chance," he says, turning around, facing me.


"I want you to be my lead manager at the Pondo in Dayton," he says, but then his gaze hits the water. He seems like he wants to jump in.

"No," he says. "Not just that. I want you to move in here with me." His laugh is a poker-party laugh.

When he comes at me for his kiss and I smell his Bloody Mary perspiration, the chlorine and humidity mixing it all into the smell of a weird salad dressing, I feel like we both might just float up into the air and disappear, like the two of us were never meant to be of this earth.

We fall into the pool instead. I take in a huge gulp of water, flail and start sinking down to the bottom. Tomorrow I'm supposed to pick Ron up at the hospital, I'm the only one who would pick Ron up there, and there he'll be waiting on me, and I'll be dead. I'll have done what he wanted to do to himself. It's funny in a way.

But then suddenly I'm jerked up and out of the water. Someone flips me onto the concrete. Jack hovers. People come out. It's a real hoot. I'm hacking and gagging myself right back into life. My vision is blurry. I almost pass out, so I wind up on Jack's bed. His bedroom is major-deluxe, all cool green walls and satiny sheets, chrome and mirrors and a black and white photograph of two big muscle guys frenching on a beach. Shane is standing by the chair, lighting up a crack pipe. He sucks it in like a baby kitten.

"He wanted me to watch you," he says, slowly opening his eyes.


"Yeah." Shane laughs. "Don't tell anybody about this." He shakes the blue-glass pipe at me.

I get up, fevered and tired, but not really that out of it for someone who just almost drowned. I can smell the leftover tang of Shane's crack.

"We didn't call an ambulance or nothing. Jack was afraid about the drugs we're doing and stuff. Do you think you need to go to the emergency room?"

After he puts his pipe down on a dresser, Shane comes over. He sits down beside me. He's this kid I don't even know, except he would always work double-shifts for me when somebody called in sick. A crack-smoking get-along kind of guy always willing to help out.

"No. I'm fine. I feel stupid."

I smile at him. Shane smiles back. His eyes look like the color of a Magic 8 Ball before the little green square floats up to tell you your future.

"I'm gonna miss closing with you," he says.

"Me, too."

Shane extends his hand and shakes mine, and then we hug, and I feel a flood of emotion bigger than Jack's pool bursting out of my stomach and heart. I sob. I pull myself away from him, stand up, turn around.

"You sure you're okay? You want me to go get Jack? He's pretty fucked up, though. That guy can't stop saying he loves you. He's telling everybody."

"No. No." I'm laughing now. "Don't worry about it. I need a cigarette."

Shane pulls one from his shirt pocket. He lights the cigarette for me. My lungs catch fire.

"Life sure is funny," I whisper.

"What?" Shane says.


I pick Ron up that next morning, dressed in my Chi-Chi's outfit. I'm starting my first shift today, and won't have time to change. He's ready in the dayroom, with his plaid suitcase, dressed in the jeans and t-shirt he tried to kill himself in.

"I'm all signed out," he says. His eyes sparkle like two chemicals mixing. He is happy. He has the shakes.

"Let's go."

He's going to stay with me. Soon he'll have hospital bills and he'll file for bankruptcy. But today he's out, and maybe there's hope in the morning air, Ron all doped up with his six prescriptions in his hand. We stop at the Wal-Green's. I wait on him in the car. He comes out with six white bags, shaking them in front of the windshield.

"It's like trick or treat." He laughs kind of sheepishly, embarrassed, gets in.

"I had to use my MasterCard. So you actually are gonna do this Chi-Chi's thing?"

We pull out.

"Today's the first day I'm on a shift for real."

He's eyeing the Waffle House now as we sit at a stoplight.

"Man, I'm starved."

I pull in. I get out and wait as he hides his new meds under the front seat. He's seems shorter, skinnier after his stay in the hospital, and he still wears his white plastic bracelet. I know I'll be working my ass off to help him. There will be days when I'll come home after pulling a double shift and he'll be eating a grilled cheese sandwich in his underwear watching The A-Team. I know this, and yet part of the joy of loving him is that sacrifice I am making, that feeling of giving up everything to get just one thing you want back in return. Almost like voodoo, like selling your soul so you can have one.

We sit in a booth and order. Mostly it's truckers and the women who love them here, the smell of burnt batter and grease.

"I've got like forty-five minutes," I say.

"We'll eat fast."

The waitress is pretty good -- gets it all out in no time. Ron eats like he just got out of prison.

"Maybe I can get on at Chi-Chi's. Dishwasher or something."

"Yeah, maybe," I say.

We finish up, go outside. The heat has already started to turn rancid. I'm about to get in the car when Ron lets out a big yell from the other side.

"Look over there!" he says, pointing to a strip-mall with a closed record store, a furniture place, and a Hobby Lobby across the road. Next to the poles of a big sign is a skinny gray ghost of a dog, long snout, panting hard as he smells the air. It's Sebastian. It just has to be.

Ron runs to the highway. I stay put. Cars honk and pass as Ron works his way across the road. As soon as Sebastian sees Ron, he starts to run. He doesn't run into the traffic. Sebastian runs the other way -- toward the back fence, where there are train tracks, trees and weeds. He's running for his life from a mad man. Ron whistles and waves his arms.

"Come here, baby! Hey Sebastian! Hey! Come back!"

I get in the car. Start the engine. Turn on the AC.

Keith Banner

Keith Banner's novel, The Life I Lead, was published by Knopf in 1999. His stories have been published in Kenyon Review, Washington Square, Other Voices, Third Coast, and Witness, among others. His stories have been anthologized in O. Henry Prize Stories 2000, Full Frontal Fiction: the Best of Nerve, and Best American Gay Fiction. His most recent book, a collection of stories, is titled The Smallest People Alive. He lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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