THE2NDHAND installment 24 is FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI, a short by Chicago fiction writer Patrick Somerville, author of the 2006 book of stories Trouble. Somerville's versatile realistic style explores the fleeting passions of youth and their memory, often idealized but in this case filled with increasingly dire premonitory cues to the loneliness of the human endeavor. Read or print the pdf of the issue here.
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FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI
There's a man walking his dog. It's misty out, like 8:30 at night, nice and quiet in the suburbs, and this man is watching his dog, maybe thinking about what he did at work today or what his wife said to him before he left. Some headlights light up his back, but he doesn't turn. He's wearing a gray fleece. He watches the dog try to decide where to pee. He says something encouraging.
The car, a red Toyota, comes around the corner too fast and is right on top of him, the beams of light flashing in the mist. If it's a movie the violins have been going soft in the background until this moment, when they come up loud as the car squeals around the corner. Maybe you can get a quick shot of him turning and holding both hands out in front of his body, like he'll be able to stop it. Maybe you can get a close-up of his face, his wide-open eyes. And then BANG, the grill makes contact with his hips. Dead man. Pancake. The car slowly drives away.
Except this dead man isn't dead. This is what I love. The dog is confused, running around its master, barking. Then, just like that, the guy stands up. First one hand into the grass, then the other. He pushes himself up. The dog tilts its head. The man just picks himself right up off the ground, looks around, and walks up into my backyard like he lives at my house.
The dog follows him, wagging its tail, happy it's worked out after all. The man walks without trouble for a hundred feet, pats the dog's head, then rests one hand on our stone birdbath. He breathes once, blinks, tries to remember where he is, and then quietly, in the dark, collapses into a heap and dies.
But this meant I was alone, and in the right place, so while I was there I couldn't help but look toward the garden, the garden that was the garden. There was the birdbath, there was where the dog had stood. I had been obsessed since the night it happened, when I saw the lights out the back window but was not allowed to go out and see for myself. His name was Charles Lane. Chuck, my mom had called him to the police.
The Jacksons were in town on a visit from Cincinnati. Dina and Eddie had been my friends, and their parents had been friends with Mom and Dave -- they were our neighbors for five years and had been gone for about six months. The Stevens kids were over as well, at least to play, even though I don't think either of them said a word to Dina or Eddie the whole night. Mom wanted us out of the house while she and Dina and Eddie's parents had dinner and wine and watched a movie (Primal Fear starring Richard Gere, but not scary at all).
"Hey," I heard in the middle of all of this thinking. I looked over and Eddie was close, now, crouched down beside a tree a few feet away from me. His black skin was not even there, now that it was so dark, and he was wearing all black for the game, too. It was summer dark. I could see his white eyes.
"You going?" he asked, in a kind of half-whisper. "Where is she?"
He was talking about his sister, who was the ghost. I was afraid of Dina. To be perfectly clear: I was very afraid of Dina, like everyone else who was playing. She was a year older than me and three years older than Eddie, and she was bigger, stronger, and faster than both of us. Bigger, faster, and stronger than almost anyone I'd ever met. She had played football with the boys from the neighborhood -- vicious, burning with anger, the first to introduce the stiff-arm to our local league -- when she and Eddie lived in town, and now the rumor was she was being recruited to play halfback for a high school team in Cincinnati. It was not hard to imagine her hitting the weights with the fellas, or even being cheered on by the offensive line of the varsity team as she bench-pressed three-hundred pounds or slammed her shoulder pads into a tackling dummy as the coach bawled her out.
When she hit you the sensation was a kind of rolling away in the opposite direction usually associated with falling down -- you went up, first, and somewhere in the violence you were suddenly on the ground. She once hit me so hard I had to go home. Straight up had to go home. I found myself on my back, smashed into the cold dirt, with Dina's long hard body poised rise off me like a black vapor, her breasts pressing up against me for a confused second -- me, tackled, in pain, but having been tackled by her, wanting her to stay right where she was. The ball was crushed up against my ribs like a jagged rock. I stayed there on the ground as she rose. I thought about doing the same and then did, though slowly, unsure as to whether or not I would be able to.
"You OK?" she asked me. Even she knew she'd gotten a once-in-a-season hit on me.
"I'm fine," I said. I went back to my team. I watched our quarterback draw a quadruple hail-mary into the palm of his hand.
We lined up.
Before the snap I held my hand up and said, "I think my mom is calling me to come back."
Everyone looked over. We listened. There hadn't been a sound.
I waited, holding my ribs, my head cocked a little bit as though I could hear my mother's voice faintly, far away. Then I finally just walked off the field, across the rest of the park, and went home.
People knew it was about a combination of pain and shame, but as long as we didn't spend too much time talking about it, it seemed fine. It wasn't like they didn't know how much of an athlete she was. Everyone had at some point been faced with the choice of getting in front of Dina and trying to tackle her as she was coming straight down the sideline, looking to lower her shoulder on you, and I'd be willing to bet that every single person there had also chosen, at some point, to step aside and let her score. Anyhow, I'd been hurt. Badly. I needed to lie down for a couple hours in front of the TV to think it over and heal up.
"I don't know where she is," I told Eddie. "But I'm not going out. Why would I right now?"
"Because we're supposed to," Eddie said, and then I could see his teeth. He was acting confident, but it was a sham. Who knows what kind of terrible torture he had endured at her hands within the confines of their home, in the darkness of the basement playroom or late at night, passing in the hallway? Noogies, snakebites, cow bites, smurf bites, headlocks, all of it. He pounded a fist into his palm, and I continued to disbelieve his confidence.
"You do whatever you need to do," I said. "I like being here. It's safe."
"We're not even s'posed to be hiding, though," he said, trying and failing to keep his voice to a whisper. "She's out there hiding. We're supposed to find her. This isn't the game."
"Do it however you want," I said. "I've got my strategy, you've got yours."
He was right, of course, about our jobs as ghosthunters, but the rules of the game morphed around Dina. I didn't want to find her, because if I did, and I screamed out that I'd found the ghost, the next thing would be me running through the dark as fast as I could, back toward the driveway, with her right behind me, ready to take me down. She didn't tag. She tackled, like she was so mad she hadn't turned out a boy that she thought if she tackled enough of them -- and hard enough -- she might stand up and finally be one herself.
My plan was to let someone more ambitious like Scott Stevens, the kid from down the street, find Dina and be the one to get his face mashed into the grass. Eddie looked like he wanted to lay into my strategy a little bit then, but before his sucked-in breath turned into more angry whispering, his eyes went wide. I saw he was looking up above my head.
"Ghost in the graveyard!" he yelled, so loud that I'm sure everyone in the neighborhood heard. He pointed above my head, and I knew then Dina was on the roof above me.
Eddie was on his feet and running and laughing before I even started scrabbling backward and away, scraping my heels into the dirt and looking up to make sure she wasn't going to jump and land right on top of my head when she finally made her move. And there she was, perched like a monstrous statue on top of a skyscraper, ready to leap. I tried to say, "Dina, no," but before any of the words came out she was in the air, and then she landed gracefully, on her feet, her hands falling to the mulch right beside the bush that had been my hiding spot. She gave me crazy eyes as I crawled a little more.
She took a step forward. Somebody ran by in a flash of blond and pink -- by those colors and the air-starved giggling it was probably Lindsay, Steve's little sister -- and I saw Dina's eyes go up for a second, puma-like. But there was no way she'd go for somebody moving at top speed instead of me, down on the ground. I took the opportunity to get up and start running. I was doomed.
I swerved right, in the direction Lindsay had gone, hoping that if I passed her Dina wouldn't have any choice but to take Lindsay as her minion instead of me. I ran through the thick, humid night past my mother's vegetable garden. I heard her close behind me -- I felt the strong hand on my shoulder. Then I was going down.
We tumbled together, both rolling from the speed.
"I got you," Dina said. She was on top of me. She had her hands on my shoulders, pushing them down, and I could feel the weight of her pelvis pressing against me. "You're my new ghost, now."
"OK," I said, trying to shuck her off with my hips.
"You're gonna have to be my slave, though," she said. She leaned in closer, her face dominating my entire view, blacking out even the blue-gray sky above us. "You promise to help me next time?"
"I promise," I said. "I promise, Dina, Jesus." I rolled as much as I could, tried to get my shoulders going. "Just let me up. I can't breathe."
"Give me a real promise." She was even closer, her breath gum-sweet and tinged with the pizza we'd had earlier. "I gotta get a real one."
"That was a real promise."
"Give me a real one," she said, and before I could say anything else, her tongue was in my mouth, hot and wet, moving around.
It was all over before I knew what had happened, and then she was back up on her feet. But that had been my promise, and for the rest of the game, I did what she asked of me without question, a zombie under her.
They all said good night and clomped back up the stairs, but Mom forgot her glass of wine, and so before we started the movie-it was Halloween 4, classic-Mom came back downstairs and I asked her to tell Dina and Eddie about Charles Lane.
"Chuck?" she asked. "Honey, why would you want to hear about that?" Her lips were shining in the light and I knew that was a sign of it, too. Maybe because she used too much chapstick when she cut loose.
"Eddie and Dina want to know," I said. We were already in our sleeping bags, spread out on the huge couch. We were too old for it, but our parents were ignoring our ages, hoping for one more visit before having to acknowledge that we were no longer toddlers, and of mixed gender. Eddie was 10, I was 13, Dina was 14.
"It was just sad," said Mom, leaning down against the arm of the couch. "It's just a sad story."
"Maybe we should just watch this movie instead," said Eddie.
"What are you three going to watch?"
"That one again?" she said, shaking her head. She looked down at me. "Why do you like that one so much? I can't even watch it. Huh-uh."
"I don't know."
"I don't want to watch it," said Eddie.
"Tell them," I said.
There was so much about being scared that I loved. It filled my chest up and made me feel my heart like it was an animal inside of me. My ears got red. And it was clear to me -- it had been for months, maybe years -- that I was going to make horror movies when I grew up.
Mom looked at the wall for a long time, then she looked at the blue screen on the TV.
""He didn't live very far away," she said.
"But what happened with the car?" I asked. "With him getting hit?"
"She had a seizure," she said.
"The girl driving."
"What's a seizure?" Eddie said.
"That's when too much electricity goes through your brain, honey," Mom said. "It's like an electrical storm. Even though there's usually electricity in there, too. But a seizure is when it goes out of control."
Eddie just looked back at her.
"Couldn't she stop it, though?" asked Dina, finally. It was the first thing she'd said.
Mom turned to her. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Why couldn't she stop the car?"
"Oh no," said my mom, shaking her head. "No, honey. You can't control it."
"It's just something," Mom said. "Something that happens. Epilepsy, it's called. The disease. It's like having cancer. It's a sickness. Caesar had it." Mom looked like she felt embarrassed about this last line, and she even frowned like she didn't know for sure.
"I could have stopped it," said Dina.
My mom didn't know what to say back to that.
We could hear the laughter upstairs and the feet stomping around. My mom looked up at the ceiling. She stood. "I'm sorry I even started telling you."
"Was it illegal for her to drive away after she hit him?" I said. "Even if she had a seizure?"
"Yes," she said. She waited there. "Now, you guys start your movie."
She smiled one last time, then patted me on the head. "We'll come down to check one more time," she said. And then the three of us listened to her climbing the stairs again.
"That's crazy shit," Eddie said, after we heard the door close. "I don't have electricity inside of my head. You think that, Dina?"
"I don't know."
"No," I said. "She's right. It's there. That's how everything works."
"That's God in there that makes it work."
"I think that she's right."
"That's God. Dina, tell him that's God."
"I don't know, Eddie," said Dina. "Stop asking."
"Fine," said Eddie. "I'll stop. But it's God. Put on the damn movie, Mike."...
Continued in THE2NDHAND Installment 24. Continued reading in the pdf of the issue here.