Monday, February 15, 2010

Chris Conroy: Small Fires

Can I tell you about the guy who was standing in front of me at the register?

I was in my car in the parking lot listening to the weather report—another blizzard pushing up from the south—when I saw him walk in the deli. He was the type most would keep their distance from; a camouflage jacket with the hood up hid some of the green tattoos painted on his yellow skinned face, his jeans were baggy and looked wet, he was without a car in a place where everyone owned one and—on a metaphysical level—the air around him was tense from things he had done or what things had done to him. Most would wait in their car for him to come out and leave before they went in, nothing positive could come from the possibility of interaction with him they would think, or simply would not even give him a thought, perhaps a meaningless phone call to a friend ("oh, nothing just thought I'd say hello...can you believe this weather...."), until the unconscious threat was gone.

I kept the engine running and went in for my lotto tickets, my hand catching the closing door my man had just opened. He was standing at the register like I said. It was just him me and the guy behind the counter. He ordered cigarettes and then turned around and our eyes met. I smiled at him. Tears were in his eyes. "My dad died yesterday," he said, "I thought last year was a bad year, and...and now this." The guy behind the counter was nervous, his large brown eyes not blinking. I said I was sorry to hear that. "Sorry to hear that." But he just stood there in front of me. He looked back at the clerk. "And now this," he said still standing there. The tattoos were bad—bad like the artwork sucked—snakes and letters and numbers and I wondered if there was any regret in them. There's always regret. Less is more with bad fucking tattoos and regret.

"Can you do me a favor?" He asked.

I looked at the clerk and then back at the question. "What?"

"Can you do me a favor?"

The clerk said here, here, I have a book of matches for you.

"What's the favor?" I almost called him boss.

"Punch me," he said. A tear rolled down his cheek slow like syrup.

I looked back at the clerk. "One mega and one pick six—quick pick." I put two bucks down and took the tickets and book of matches. "Follow me," I said to the guy and went outside.

I leaned up against the front of my idling car. The windows were fogged from the running heat; the vibration of news radio ran through me like a sermon heard from a hallway. I tossed him the book of matches. They landed at his feet.

"You smoke?"

"No." I watched him light the butt with a lighter he had inside his jacket. It took him awhile to get a flame going—click, click, click. And then a tiny light inside a hooded cave. Puff, puff, puff.

"What did he die of?" I asked him. "Your father."

"He just died. They called me up and said he's dead, your father passed they said. They told me where I had to go and when. That was all.”

I say nothing and then, "Where do you want me to hit you?"

"His name was Earl...he was an asshole," he says. "Can I have a few dollars to get something to eat?"

"Eat your cigarettes," I tell him. "Happy meal."

"What?" The wind kicks up and almost blows his hood down. He holds his hands over his head trapping the hood tight. "Fuck you," he says like a question, then: "FUCK YOU."

A snow flake melts on my knuckle. The sky is gray and the storm is here like dog shit in my nostrils, unmistakable, distinct, but not yet under my feet. There is so much more to the sense of smell than humans know. "Good," I tell him. "Fuck me."

"Your fucking tattoos," I tell him, "are terrible." I hold my hands out and the flakes melt into me, microscopic sculptures of art here and then gone in seconds, half seconds. "When was the last time you looked in the mirror? Do you know what you look like?" For a second I almost reconsider what I'm doing, but only for a second, this is not about me, or is it? I bring my arms back to my sides, the wetness dripping from them.

He starts walking away.

"Hey," I yell. "Where you going?"

He keeps walking.

I breathe in and then shout, "Your father killed himself because of you. Because of worthless you."

He stops.

"You're a fucking waste," I yell, "And Earl knew it. Couldn't live knowing it."

He turns and starts back to me.

I close my eyes and hold my hands out again. The snow, now fat and flaky, smacks my hands, my arms, my face…and then the knuckle, his hard cold knuckle to the side of my face, above the left eye, cracking me crooked like a sharp stone skimmed on calm waters. I keep my eyes closed for awhile waiting for another shot but nothing comes. All I see when I open them is a book of flaming matches glowing in a new storm.

Conroy's fiction has been published in several online and print publications, including Whetstone, Word Riot, Ward6 Review, Zingmagazine and The Hell Gate Review. Check out an excerpt from a fiction in progress--Quercus Alba--in the inaugural print issue of The Wanderlust Review, Feb 2010. Or drop him a line at

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