Fiction: Distance by Laura A. Zink

So the plan was like this – we’d tell him we could score some weed, we’d take him into an alley, and then, we’d mug him. It was a rotten idea. Kind of a bullshit thing to do on my part, too. But so much garbage was coming at me that day. Real rapid fire. Like there was the money, of course. Fashion, I guess. Robitussin. Nirvana. Some dude crapping himself. A girl. I don’t know. Hella shit. It just sort of happened.

The day started off pretty normal. I woke up under the bridge with the Newell Punx around noon and went to Creek Liquors to spend the last of my GA check on a bag of Top tobacco and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 Grape. Around four or five, we went to the park and sat around on the grass, rolling cigarettes, drinking, and talking about maybe shoplifting something to trade for meth later on. Typical Monday.

It didn’t get weird until Janie sat next to me. God, you should have seen her: big tits, pink Bettie Paige haircut, deep-green eyes, nice legs. She looked way older than fifteen. She wasn’t the kind of girl who’d look twice at a dude like me either, mainly because she could go back to her folks’ house whenever she wanted. But there were a bunch of those house-punk types around. Like Nirvana got famous, and all these rich kids wanted to play orphan. Most of them were assholes hogging up the spare change, but not Janie. She wore rich kid real different. At least, to me. You might think I’m weird, but I thought of it this way – if she let me get with her, she’d be saying what I had was better than nice parents and a soft bed and money. Being twenty-one and legit homeless pushing five years, screwing Janie would’ve been a real big ego boost. I had to go for it.

So we were sitting in the park, and I noticed it was pretty overcast. I thought it was a good enough time to move in on her, so I handed her my army jacket. She scrunched up her nose and waved me off. That made me feel like a jerk, so when she grabbed the bottle of Mad Dog out of my hand, I didn’t protest. I watched her drain it, too. She handed me the empty bottle and looked out across the park. Then, she whispered, “Oh my God. Dan, look.”

I looked, but all I saw was a runty, blonde kid with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the dirt. He wore baggy jeans and an even baggier t-shirt that had this big cross with a red no symbol over it. I figured it was some kind of statement, but he couldn’t have been older than twelve, so what the fuck did he know about anything? I pointed at him.

“That little kid?” I said.

“Shhh,” she said. She grabbed my arm and pulled it down. Then, she put her mouth to my ear and with a breathy whisper, she’s like, “He’s a mark. Look at that wallet chain. One yank and we got his wallet.”

At first, I thought she was kidding. Sure, the chain was ridiculous. It ran from somewhere under his t-shirt to his knee and back up in a silvery loop. And sure, it was dumb to advertise a wallet like that, but he looked like one of those foo foo “grunge” kids, and they all wore those stupid chains. We had plenty of crooks and junkies around town, too, but we weren’t supposed to have muggings and SROs and tragic deaths and end-of-the-line shit like that. That was San Francisco stuff. Shit you had to take BART to get to. Janie didn’t let up though.

“C’mon,” she said. “We could get an eight ball and a room.”

I had a sweet tooth for dope for sure, but my mind closed in on two words – a room. The other times any of us Newell guys had tried anything with her, it was under the bridge, so she’d say there were too many people around. So I thought, if I hooked up dope and a room, she’d sort of have to give in, right? And she had to know what she was asking me to do was a big deal. I had broken into houses and cars, but that was victimless stuff, or at least victimless in the sense that the “victim” was far away when it happened. No one was traumatized. Mugging was different. It’s one of those stare-the-victim-in-the-face sort of crimes, something only legit bad guys did. And I didn’t want to be that kind of guy, you know? And the kid was so young.

But then, I looked down at Janie, big green eyes peeking over my shoulder and hands tugging at my arm, and I just felt so lonely all of a sudden. What could I do? I said ok.

***

I walked over to the kid, smiling and holding out my bag of Top. I asked him if he wanted a smoke. In a voice way too deep to be natural, he said, “Yeah, bro. Dyin’ for one.”

He stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a fat pinch of loose tobacco. He looked at it, put it back, stuck his other hand in the bag, and started fingering around. Clearly, the kid had no idea what he was doing, but I didn’t want him to feel like a jerk. I pulled the bag back and told him I’d roll him one. While I was working on his cigarette, I tried to think of a way to start up some friendly chitchat. He was obviously the kind of kid who went to school, so I asked him about it. He got a real serious look on his face and stared out into the distance.

“Nah,” he said. “I ditched that shit. Needed a day to chill out. Get my thoughts together.”

I coughed to hide a laugh. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s tough out there.”

Just as I handed him the cigarette, the sun started shining. My clothes started to roast and give off a sour, salty smell. It made me think about Janie turning up her nose at my jacket. My mom had a thing with smell. Used to say it was a bum’s ID card, usually in reference to my dad. She told me I smelled like a bum once, right before she changed the locks on me for being strung out all the time. Thinking about that made me feel kind of embarrassed, so I crossed my arms and tried to cover it, hoping the kid wouldn’t notice.

“So,” I said. “Your mom know you’re out here?”

“Nah, bro,” he said. “She’s hella square.”

“Guess she doesn’t like that shirt much either,” I said and jerked an elbow at the slashed over cross.

He sniffed the air. “Fuuuck, bro,” he said. He wiped the back of his hand against his nose and took a step back. And then, he’s like, “God is for fucking feebs.”

My first thought was, “Shit, I don’t need a lecture from some dumbass kid.” But then, I was so fucking glad he didn’t say anything about the smell. And it wasn’t like I could get a word in edgewise anyway. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how much this kid talked. He told me about his stepdad being a dick and about his teachers being on his back and how his shirt was for Bad Religion, which was his favorite band, and he respected them even though they “sold out,” but he was going to do them one better by starting a band and never ever signing on a major label and getting owned by “corporate fuckwads and shit clowns.” Honestly, I got a little kick out of it. I even started to remember how I felt that shit when I was his age. You know, “fuck authority” and ideals and dreams and crap. I hadn’t gotten in a conversation like that for a long time. It felt kind of nice.

Then, Janie came over. “You want to buy some grass?” she said.

I was crazy pissed she did that. She had no appreciation for the trust and good social woo woo I was building with this kid. I nudged her on the shoulder, giving her that calm-the-fuck-down look. She pinched my side and gave me that what-the-hell’s-your-problem look. Then, we both looked at the kid, stupidly, big smiles on our faces.

The kid wasn’t paying attention. He stood there, lock of hair hanging over one eye, the other eye zeroing in on Janie’s tits. The little perv had the same thing on his mind as I did. I clapped him on the shoulder and asked him his name. All he said was, “Huh?”

“Your name, kiddo,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s Tyler,” he said. He flipped his hair away from his eye.

“I’m Jon,” I lied. “And this is Nicole.” I pointed to Janie.

Janie crossed her arms over her chest and sighed. “You smoke weed, Tyler?” she said.

He flicked out his chin. “Hell yeah,” he said. “I been tokin’ for like…a year now.”

It was obvious the little guy was lying, but Janie didn’t seem to care. She kept at him, going on about how we could hook him up if he came downtown with us. I’m not sure if Tyler was excited about the drugs or the attention, but he had a light in his eyes and this big-ass, giddy smile on his face. Then, he’s like, “Fuck yeah! That rules!” His voice totally cracked when he said it, too.

Janie snorted, grabbing her mouth and choking out these hard, nasally giggles. Tyler must have felt pretty dumb because he started walking out of the park ahead of us, shoulders slouching in some phony gangster act, wallet chain sparkling one last time before the sun hid back behind the clouds. I grabbed Janie’s hand and jogged us forward, but I was pretty pissed at how pushy she was being. She wouldn’t give me the chance to figure out if the whole thing was a good idea or not, which I tell you right now, it wasn’t.

***

I needed to buy myself some time so I could find a good alley to do this in. I told Tyler we needed to go to a special payphone to make sure the dealer would answer.

“The dude is crazy paranoid,” I said. I tapped Tyler’s shoulder with a friendly partner-in-crime kind of move. He looked at me and smiled a little, so I knew I was helping him forget how much Janie embarrassed him. And it seemed like he trusted me, too.

It was about that time I noticed Janie wasn’t with us. I looked back, and she was trailing behind us, smoking a cigarette with one hand and twirling her hair with the other. She didn’t have a care in the world. We had a plan to meet up at an abandoned house on Lily Street if we got separated, but I didn’t think she was planning on us getting separated. So now I’m thinking, if I had to do everything by myself, I’d have to deal with the consequences by myself, too. And, if I didn’t pull it off, Janie would never fuck me. And she’d probably tell the Newell Punx I was too chickenshit to take down a twelve-year-old, and then, they’d never stop shoving me around and stealing my shit. Like ever.

I shook it off and tried to keep the conversation going. I focused on the deal, talking about the size of the buds, saying they were as big as an eighth and all green and covered with purple crystals.

“Totally worth the price,” I said. “Forty bucks an eighth is a steal.”

Tyler nodded and said, “Sure is, bro.”

Since he seemed cozy with forty bucks, I decided to push it a little further.

“You could get a half for a hundred probably,” I said. I eyeballed him. The price didn’t faze him at all. I pressed on, making him another cigarette, scanning the side streets, and continuing on about the buds. He looked at the ground as I talked, nodding along with whatever I said. But after a few blocks, I ran out of stuff to say.

Before there was even three seconds of quiet, Tyler’s like, “My pops used to drink Robitussin. Like ‘til he was whacked out and trippin’, bro.”

That shook me. I didn’t say it, but I’m thinking, “Seriously? You want to talk dads?” I mean, who does that? You didn’t see me whining to him about my dad. Like I’m going to be all, “Yeah, my pops drank himself to death in an SRO in SF.” No fucking way, right? Because it wasn’t shit for regular conversations, especially with strangers. I tried to ignore it, but he kept going. Evidently, his pops was in some kind of hospital.

“He’s wet-brained now,” he said. “He shakes and shits his pants.”

And what the fuck was I supposed to say to that? There I was, trying to figure out a side street or an alley to mug this kid, and he’s getting crazy personal with me. I got a vision of Tyler standing over his wet-brained father at the hospital, looking down at his drooling face and shaky hands, missing him and feeling betrayed at the same time. I started thinking about how he was probably made fun of at school for having an alcoholic dad who shits his pants. Poor kid probably got all red-faced, balling his fists and holding back tears, fucking laughter echoing in his ears. People made fun of my dad, too, but what did the kid think I was, a therapist?

I looked behind me, and Janie was closer than before, only a half block away. I flicked my head once to call her over. She flipped me off. I opened my eyes real wide and clenched my jaw, trying to drive home how urgent it was she come and help me. She looked away and waved me forward like I was a little kid. Completely shut me out.

And Tyler kept talking. I tried to look interested and thoughtful, wrinkling my brow and cupping my chin, but I didn’t want to hear it anymore. The craziest thing was, the longer I tried to block out his voice, the more I saw him. His hands were little and clumsy. His skinny fingers held his cigarette like a joint. He didn’t even inhale it right, just sucked in a cloud and blew it right back out. He was trying so hard to act cool and grown. And the more I looked at him, the more I felt like a twelve-year-old kid again. I could almost see myself standing at the edge of the park, wearing a Testament t-shirt and that stupid latchkey tied around my neck with green yarn, wishing someone would think I was cool so I didn’t have to go back to my mom’s crappy, empty apartment and be bored by myself the rest of the night.

While I was going through all this, the sun came out again. Everything around me got painful and shiny, even Tyler. His shirt, too. It went hard crazy white, that stupid red no symbol bleeding through, the fucking cross. It made me think about fate, that maybe what was happening was bigger than screwing Janie. Like maybe God wasn’t just some feeb-magnet nobody, and Tyler met me for a reason. My first day at the park, all I got was metalheads buying me forties and laughing at me when I puked on myself. It was humiliating, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from coming back and screwing up my life so bad that by the time I was grown, I was basically trying to mug my younger self. I looked at Tyler again, his stupid little skater haircut, his freckled kiddy face, the jerky nightgown-sized shirt, and I started to think if I scared him real bad, maybe I could change his path and make him turn out less like…well, less like me. You might think I’m crazy, but at that moment, I seriously thought mugging him was the nicest thing I could do.

So then ahead of me, about thirty feet away, I saw a small alley on the left. Where the sidewalk met the alley, there was a six-foot-tall chain-link fence. Ivy coated it from top to bottom, so whatever happened behind the fence was blocked from the street. Directly across the street from that, there was another alley, blocks long and covered on either side by three-story buildings. And behind me, just a few paces away, Janie started to hum real sweet and playful. On my left, Tyler jumped over puddles, skipping almost, smiling and clueless, puffing out little clouds of smoke. In front of me, the ivy-covered fence got closer and closer. It felt like a sign.

I grabbed his skinny shoulders and slammed his face into the fence. I got behind him and pushed him up against it, clutched his wallet chain, yanked, and ran across the street with the wallet in my hand. Once I got to the alley, I heard a loud voice behind me, high-pitched and urgent, “Run, Dan! Run!”

It was Janie. She screamed my real name, outing me to everyone in earshot. I charged forward, her voice getting fainter the farther I ran.

Once it disappeared, another voice rose up in its place, louder and higher-pitched than the first, “Fuck you, Dan! Give me my wallet!”

The little shit was chasing me. I heard his sneakers padding against the ground behind me. He was gaining on me fast. I changed course and ran to Main Street, hoping to lose him. I wove through the shoppers and darted into the street, running right down the middle until I saw an outdoor tunnel on the left. I turned and took it. My boots smacked against the concrete. My breath echoed off the walls. Once I was halfway through, I realized all the sounds in the tunnel came from me. I had lost him.

I bent over and grabbed my knees, trying to catch my breath. I felt like I was going to puke, but I lifted myself up anyway and opened the wallet. There were a bunch of bills: a couple of tens, some fives and ones, a few twenties. It was enough to get dope, a room, and a little private attention from a green-eyed girl with a bad attitude. I could almost feel her tits in my hands.

As I’m counting the money, a scuffing, squeaking sound came from the other end of the tunnel, soft and faint at first, but it got louder. I turned and saw Tyler coming at me again, face red, arms pumping.

“My bus pass!” he screamed. “Just give me my bus pass!”

What was I supposed to do? Wait for him so I could return his bus pass? Stomach acid rising in my throat, I turned and ran again. Across the street, I saw another chain-link fence. There were thick hedges about three feet up on either side, and the fence itself was another three feet beyond that. I knew I’d have to leap over the bushes to reach the top of the fence, and if I could pull that off, I’d have to toss myself over the top far enough to avoid getting tangled in the three feet of bushes waiting for me on the other side. It was dangerous, but I had no other choice. I had to ditch this kid.

I booked across the street, gathering as much momentum as I could. Once the bushes were a few feet away, I leapt. I caught the fence with my hands and twisted my fingers through the chain links, straining to pull myself up. Boots scraping against the fence, I jerked up and heaved myself over. It was a blind drop, but I landed. Both feet on the asphalt, too.

In front of me, there was a small alley parking lot, and at the end of it, a thin passageway between two buildings. All I had to do was get through that, and it’d be a straight shot down State Street to the abandoned house on Lily where Janie was waiting inside.

As I ran to the edge of the parking lot, I heard a dragging sound – ping, ping, scrape, ping. There was a rustle of branches, and a hard thump, like a sack of meat hitting the concrete – thunk. Then, it was quiet, so quiet the air had a sound, almost like an echo. I turned, and the parking lot was empty. No Tyler anywhere. I should have been relieved, but all the quiet and emptiness was eerie. Something wasn’t right.

I walked back to the fence. As I got closer, I heard whimpering in the bush. I looked over it. Tyler was flat on his back, right leg bent forward and twisted, bloodstain spreading across his jeans at the shin. My chest froze.

“Why the hell did you run after me?” I said. I stared at him, waiting for an answer. He only winced. His eyes squeezed tight. His chin quivered. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, to comfort him or something, but when I reached out, my hand trembled. I pulled it back, held it to my chest.

“Can you hear me, kid?” I said.

He nodded and coughed out a few hard sobs.

“This was an accident,” I said. “You can’t blame me for an accident.”

He shook his head, his eyes locking on some distant place in the sky. I looked, too. The only thing up there was a blanket of dark grey clouds. They rolled slowly over us. Just carrying on. Like nothing. We were alone. Two stupid, fucked up kids in a dirty back alley. I looked down at the wallet. I knew what I had to do.

“I’ll find a phone and call 911,” I said. “I’ll get you an ambulance, okay?”

Tyler wailed and burst into loud, gasping tears. “I want my mom,” he said.

Everything around me dissolved: the buildings, the alley, the parking lot. I felt a spark of anger. He had his mom. And he expected her. He hurt himself chasing down some fucking criminal, and he expected her to make it better. And she probably would. She’d probably cry, too. Probably come to the hospital with that asshole stepdad who’d probably apologize for being a dick. Tyler would get better, and Tyler would start that stupid band that was like Bad Religion, and Tyler would finish high school and college and have ideals and dreams and live a long and wonderful life. And the biggest bitch, the biggest “fuck you” of them all was he wouldn’t get anything unless I saved him first. And what could I expect for that? Time in jail? A bridge to sleep under? Some dumb girl who’d only fuck me if I had drugs or money? I’d been a kid standing at the edge of a park once, too, but no one came to save me. No one even spared a thought for me. For what happened to me. What would happen…

I pulled the money out of the wallet and stuffed it in my pocket. He owed me that at least. There was no way I could stay in town, so I left the bus pass in the billfold.

I leaned over Tyler and said, “Listen, kid. You don’t know me. You never saw me. I don’t fucking exist. And if you tell your parents or the cops I do, I’ll find you and kill you myself.” I dropped the wallet next to his head, chain and all. Then, I ran as fast as I could to catch the BART train out of town.

Once inside, I sat by the window. I could see the bridge, the park, and the abandoned house on Lily Street. Down State Street, the red lights of the ambulance flashed. I called that ambulance. It was the last thing I saw before the train hit the tunnel. I sat back and closed my eyes, turning my thoughts to the city. I saw a flash of Tyler’s broken leg, his wincing face. My guts twisted and forced my eyes back open.

Two dark, cloudy eyes stared back at me. It was an old woman. Pink rain bonnet. Tan trench coat. She started and broke her gaze. I figured she was embarrassed, what with me catching her staring and all. And then, she lifted her purse. Wrapped her arms around it, too. Clutched it to her chest. I scanned the car. I needed one person, just one to acknowledge that the woman was crazy, that I wasn’t the kind of guy who’d do something like that to an old lady. But everywhere I looked, bodies stiffened, purses and backpacks inched away, one gaze after another escaped mine in search of windows, watches, and floors. I felt so enormous and invisible at the same time. That feeling, it takes you to some way back place you didn’t know you remembered. There’s sun on the blacktop. The smell of tanbark. Jump ropes and swings. All the kids are laughing and huddling together. They’re watching you without looking, whispering into their hands.

Laura A. Zink lives in Oakland, California and teaches fiction writing and composition at Berkeley City College. She earned her MFA at St. Mary’s College of California and her MA at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She was a Beast Crawl Literary Festival organizer and the Editor-in-Chief at MARY: A Journal of New Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Broad River ReviewFull of CrowsPARKLE & bLINKNaked Bulb 2016 Summer AnthologyLiterally StoriesFICTION on the WEB, and The East Bay Review

2 responses to “Fiction: Distance by Laura A. Zink

  1. Wow. i’m stunned by the experience and the quality of writing. You go through each moment with complete detail revealing yourself with humanity. i value your unflinching ability to look at your own behavior its what i do in my writing, and reveal things i’m not proud of, and hope the truth behind some of my bad choices is that i’m not a bad person. You have earned redemption and forgiveness from me whether you are looking for it or not, and the quality of writing is there; a quality and power that comes with your willingness to reveal with rigorous honesty. This is good, its just really really good.

    Like

  2. Pingback: JMWW’S BEST OF NET NOMINATIONS 2019! | JMWW·

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