Fiction: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Jason Kniep


Laurel and Mimi pretended to be in line for the ladies even though there was no line. They glanced frequently in the direction of the kitchen door. From behind it came the muffled sounds of Tejano music and the clattering bustle of the dishwashers. Mimi was a bit wasted.

“So this guy’s like a singer?” she asked.

“Bruce Springsteen.”

“I know, but what’s he sing?”

“He’s got like a million hits. From a long time ago, but still.”

“How do they go? Just one.”

Laurel looked up at the ceiling. “Oh, okay, Dancing in the Night. ‘You and me we’re just dancing in the night. Duh duh duh duh duuuh. D-d-d-dancing in the night.'” She rolled her hand as if this spark of a lyric might ignite a fire. Mimi frowned in concentration then her eyes brightened.

“Yes! I know that one!”

“Yeah. Big hit in the 90s.” Laurel went back to her phone. Mimi swayed and tried to peek into the kitchen through the gap between the door and the frame.

“What’s another one?”

“I don’t know any more.”

“You said there were like a million.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know them.”

“I see,” said Mimi. “Alright, I have to pee. Wait here and shout if the door opens. I don’t want to miss this.”

“Sure, Meems.”

 

The rest of the group sat in their large, semi-circular booth. Bella, the first to become bored with her social media, put her phone down.

“Okay, vote. Who really thinks Bruce Springsteen is working in the back?” Everybody continued to look at their phones. “Did you guys hear me or are you not raising your hands because you don’t believe it?”

“Yes,” a few of them answered.

“Yes, you do think—”

“Nobody thinks he works here,” said Darla.

“Laurel thinks he’s too old to play guitar.”

“In a college bar in the Midwest? There’s no way.”

“What does he sing again?” The clattering of fingernails on screens.

“Born in the USA,” Christa said. A few nodded, said ‘oh yeah.’

“That song’s about vets, you know,” said Lilly and then blushed. “I mean, that’s what I heard.” Her father, a fan with all of Springsteen’s records (even one titled Nebraska that he hardly ever played) had told her this. For some reason, the fact had lodged itself in her brain.

“I doubt that,” Darla said.

“Like, I mean veterans from wars. Not cat vets.”

“Still.”

“Like from Iraq?”

“He wrote that way before Iraq. This is like for World War II veterans. Like we wouldn’t be born here in the USA if it weren’t for them saving the world.”

“That makes a little more sense.”

“Do you think he knows Drake?”

Mimi came running and slid into the table causing the drinks to leap in their glasses.

“Oh my god, we saw him!”

“You did?”

Laurel walked up behind Mimi. “No, we didn’t.”

“Ha ha, got you!” Mimi said, going around the table and pointing her finger in the face of each one of them.

***

“My dad’s a huge fan,” Lilly said when she got into his truck. He pulled his bandanna off his head and wiped his face. “How long have you been working at the Crow’s Feet?”

“Just a few nights,” he said. Out of all of her friends, Lilly was the least likely to go home with a guy she met in a bar. But it’s Bruce Springsteen. And he had approached her!

“Oh, before I forget, my friend Tessa wondered if you know Drake.”

“Yeah, totally. I love Drake.”

“You do know him?!”

“Yeah, who doesn’t.”

“She will be so excited to hear that.”

“I’m cat-sitting for a friend. Cool if we go back to his place?”

“Sure,” Lilly said. She was riding in a truck with one of her father’s all-time heroes of rock and roll. She couldn’t wait to tell him. She ran her finger along a crack in the vinyl dash.

“I like this,” she said. “Real working man’s truck.”

“Yeah, watch your feet. Floorboard’s a little iffy.”

***

Lilly’s father, Dan Parsons, awoke to an urgent email from American Express. Several unauthorized purchases had been attempted in the wee hours of the night, charges to Samsung, Newegg, DJI. Large sums of money. On the phone, the operator confirmed all unauthorized charges had been declined except one to Dockers.com ($137!). The operator assured Dan that the charge would be reversed then issued him a new card.

Days later, an orange package arrived on his doorstep, a plasticy, tear-proof bag with little white anchors dotting the surface.

Dan brought the package inside and dropped it on an end table near the front door. For days, it taunted him as he came and went from the house. Dan refused to give it the satisfaction of his attention. It represented another entry in a long list of to-dos waiting on his peripheral, a series of time consuming duties: find a customer service number, call the company, wait on hold, explain what had happened, argue over who pays return shipping, print a shipping label, locate a shipping drop-off and transport the package to that location. If Dockers wanted it back, they could contact him.

But nobody called. Nobody demanded that the package be returned. Dan picked up the bag and squeezed it. He bounced it on his palm, assessing the weight and the possible contents like a Christmas present. His address and name were right there on the packing label. What was the point of stealing something and then shipping it to the victim? What was the plan here?

Eventually, Dan tore the damn thing open. If it really was just a pair of pants that cost 137 dollars, he wanted to know what a pair of 137 dollar pants looked like.

The fabric was soft and thin, black stretchy material, almost elegant. Dan mostly wore jeans. These bore no resemblance to the warm, earthy cotton of denim. They smelled like the interior of a new car. The seams ran down the front of the legs which tapered to a constricting cuff.

Holding the pants felt vindicating: they had been stolen with his identity, but he had stolen them back, indirectly. Dan handled them with rough authority. It seemed possible that he might intimidate them into a confession. He examined the tag. The pants were one waist size smaller than Dan’s and his exact length. Probably not a usable clue, but the thief was somewhat the same size as his mark.

***

Lilly’s mother called her about the pants.

“He struts around in these things like he’s some sort of rock star.”

“Mom, who cares,” Lilly said. “If he likes them, what’s the big deal?”

“They’re stolen, that’s what. What’s suddenly so wrong with the Levis I get him?”

“Well he can’t send them back now.”

“He held Jack Thompson hostage in our driveway for almost twenty minutes. Bending over and stretching. Showing Jack his butt!”

“Dad has something he’s proud of. Those pants are like the son he never had.”

“Would you talk to him? He thinks I’m overreacting.”

“Maybe you are.”

“How’s school?”

“I don’t know, I guess—”

“Bring it up at Thanksgiving. You’re still coming aren’t you? There’s talk of snow.”

“I live three miles away. I think I can make it.”

 

For the past few weekends, Dan had been taking the pants out for a stroll. Just him and his pants, downtown, middle of the afternoon. Though his belly mushroomed over the waistband and he was unable to button them, the drape of his shirttail concealed this secret. Just a few blocks over from the university campus, he walked ‘O’ Street, passing the Miller & Paine building, a defunct department store that, in its heyday, would have been the place to go for the 1960s equivalent of $137 pants.

This particular Saturday: partly cloudy, a high of 76, mild breeze, people galore.

Dan was searching for a record store that he used to frequent back when he was in college and still passionate about music. A quick inventory of his record collection revealed an embarrassing reality: 95 percent of the titles were music produced before Lilly’s birth. During Lilly’s pre-teen years, Dan believed getting his daughter excited about music might help keep him engaged. As they listened to his favorite bands, he would reveal to her the anecdotes of rock history that he had discovered when he was a kid, the way one might hand down family heirlooms:

Q: Did you know that Peter Gabriel was in the original Genesis?

A: The Original Genesis? That’s a dumb name.

Other parents had bonded with their kids over music. He knew it was possible. Yet he seemed to have produced the one offspring who didn’t care. The less interest Lilly showed, the harder he tried. Anyone could see this was a recipe for failure. She would allow him her attention for the duration of one song during which he would ply her with facts:

Q: Did you know that after Ian Curtis killed himself, the rest of the band formed New Order?

A: (singing along) Love will tear us a fart again…

He tried to meet her halfway, giving her favorites a chance: the Rihannas and Taylors and Mileys and Katys. He avoided sounding like a grumpy old man by keeping to himself what all grumpy old men knew: that it all sounded the same. He swallowed the bad taste and offered her Cyndi and Siouxsie Sioux. She didn’t seem to absorb any of it. Soon after giving her a Joshua Tree CD for her twelfth birthday and finding it two months later under the living room couch—a piece of dust-bunnied gift wrap still scotch-taped to the jewel case—he gave up trying.

But on this beautiful day, Dan was feeling renewed; charged a bit by his sleek trousers. He could regain his excitement, refuse to be grumpy. He could start slow, ease himself back in by purchasing something familiar yet different. Maybe some of those newer guitar-less Radiohead records. Revival was within reach, if he could just find the record store. The problem was, Dan hadn’t spent any significant time downtown in years and barely recognized it. Only a handful of stores still remained from the mid-nineties. The lack of familiar landmarks made it hard for him to determine which block the record store had even been on.

As Dan continued his search, he thought he spotted his daughter on the next block. He set out to catch her but could not navigate the swarms of people. The sidewalks were full of parents with wide, big-wheeled strollers and college students parading small dogs that seemed purposefully bred for problematic health. All of them bumbled along, congesting the path. Gazing down at their phones, the crowd drifted with a zombie’s gait, frustrating Dan’s attempts to pass.

Dan stepped off the curb. He weaved between park cars, lost Lilly, then located her again on the other side of the street.

He didn’t notice the small girl until he was already plowing over her. She darted out of the crowd just as Dan had hopped through the tight space between a no-parking sign and a bicycle rack. Her head collided with his thigh and Dan tumbled into one of the chained up bikes. The girl sprawled and slammed to the sidewalk.

A woman not much older than Lilly appeared and helped the girl to her feet. From the breast pocket of the woman’s shirt a Kleenex peeked out, olive-specked with dried kid snot.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t even see her,” Dan said, righting himself off the fallen bike. “I was trying to catch my daughter.”

“Yours is trying to get away from you, too?” the woman said. She brushed the girl’s clothing with a stiff, indifferent hand. The girl, probably stunned, was not crying, complaining, or bleeding. “Anyway, she was headed for the street,” the woman said. “So I guess… thank you for knocking her on her face?” She took the girl’s hand and they disappeared into the crowd.

Even before he looked down, Dan knew what he would see. He had heard and felt it: the snag, the tug, the soft sound of the rip, in it’s own little wavelength, tucked beneath the noise of the city: Krrcck.  His pants had caught on the sprocket of the parked bicycle and ripped a ten-inch gash in the fabric.

Dan sat down on the curb. He ran his finger along the rip in his pants. He’d lost Lilly but what was the big deal? He could easily pull out his phone and call her. It made little sense and had a whiff of desperation, but he had wanted to run into Lilly accidentally while wearing his new pants. He wanted her to see him out of the house, being independent. He couldn’t say why exactly, but he wanted her to notice how well he was doing and that he looked better than ever.

***

Lilly went home for the extended Thanksgiving weekend. Her parents had lived in the same house since they were married. Though it was once located beyond the city limits, the city had expanded over the decades, pushing out to meet and finally surround the Parsons’ home. Layer upon layer of suburbs formed a visual record of the city’s growth, as readable from the sky as the rings of a tree.

Except for some lost hair and sagging skin, her parents were essentially the same people they had been when they had met in high school. The success of their marriage seemed to rest on the fact that they were still getting exactly what they had signed up for.

Her father sat in his recliner, squinting and pecking at his phone. Inside his black socks, his toes rubbed together in concentration. His forehead creased into a baffled frown draining into a delta at the top of his nose, the look of a man who had lost faith in the security of his online identity.

On her night with Bruce, Lilly had imagined this very moment, alone with her father, telling him all about it. But now that she was in his presence, she could not find the words to start the conversation. In her fantasy, they were in media res: her father tipping his head back with laughter and peppering her pauses with, ‘oh my god’ and ‘I always thought he was like that!’. And when the moment came that she revealed how the night ended, he grinned sheepishly, unable to disapprove of the sexual escapades of his daughter. In her imagination, her father’s pride transformed her from just another silly girl.

Lilly moved over to him and balanced herself on the arm of his chair. They looked at his screen together. She rested her cheek on the side of his head. He smelled like he had always smelled, his masculine, musky Dial soap. The heat from his bald head wafted up to her.

“Dad, I want to tell you something.” Lilly adjusted her body so that she was not touching her father. Her butt slipped off the arm of the chair.  She re-perched.

“What’s that?” he said.

“Well, it’s kind of hard to say…”

“Your mom’s been talking to you about the pants, hasn’t she?”

“The pants?”

“The stolen pants I was wearing.”

“Oh, yes. But—”

“Only your mother could freak out over a piece of clothing.” He rolled his eyes then offered a quick, apologetic smile. “Anyway, I got rid of the pants.”

“Oh.”

“Donated them to Goodwill.” He stared across the room at the wall. “They were amazing pants.”

“That was nice. Doing that for mom.” Lilly put her arm around his neck and squeezed. “I’m proud of you.”

Maybe she’d tell him some other time, far in the future. Maybe on his deathbed.

***

Those of her friends who were still in town for the holiday came to Lilly’s parents’ house on Saturday. They embraced each other as if it had been years rather than three days since they had parted. Lilly’s mother let them drink her wine. They did so with unsophisticated abandon, laughing and rolling around on the living room carpet.

Lilly’s parents were in the family room setting up the Christmas tree. Her father came through the living room on his way to retrieve more ornaments from a storage closet. He smiled when the conversation stalled in his passing presence.

Mimi, per her habit, had drank too much. She said, “Your dad’s a babe, Lills.” Everyone became quiet and stared at her and then at Lilly for a reaction. “No, guys, I didn’t mean like, oh, I want to fuck him. You know what I mean.”

They knew what Mimi meant.

“Meems, you need to cool it on the wine,” Laurel said, tapping at her phone.

“I was not being inapprope. He’s a hot older guy. That’s a compliment.”

“It’s fine, Mimi,” Lilly said, though her face did not match the sentiment of forgiveness.

“You guys, I was kidding.” They pulled out their phones, reflexive embarrassment deflection. “Don’t be such goddamn prisses.”

“Chill, Meems,” Laurel said.

“You fucking chill, snot!”

Lilly’s father came back through the room carrying a box of brightly colored bulbs. He paused and looked at the solemn group.

“Kind of quiet in here. Honey, put on one of my records if you want.”

“We’re fine, Dad,” Lilly said.

Then Mimi said, “You got any Springsteen, Mr. Parsons? Lilly literally loves Springsteen.” Lilly shot her a look that shattered against the shield of Mimi’s drunkenness.

“You do?” her father said.

“He’s okay.”

“I’ve got all of his records.”

“I know that.”

“Which do you want to hear?”

“Any one you want, Mr. Parsons,” Mimi said, batting her eyelids. “What’s your favorite song by him? Play that.”

“Oh gosh, there are so many. Which ones do you girls know?”

“These heathens don’t know any!” Mimi said slashing her arm through the air then snorting the last of her wine. Lilly’s dad made his way over to the stereo, pulled an album from its sleeve and placed it on the platter.

“The Boss,” he whispered with reverence.

“Dad, this really isn’t necessary.” He turned around and faced the group of girls, cross-legged on the floor, staring blankly into phones and wine glasses.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I guess… Yeah, I’ll just leave it off.”

“She’s being coy,” Mimi said. “Drop that needle, DJ!”

“Is that okay?” he asked, unsure to whom he was directing the question.

“It’s fine,” Lilly said.

“I’ll just put it on and leave you girls to it. You can shut it off. Or whatever. I won’t be offended.” Lilly’s father sputtered the insecure laugh of a man twice the age of everyone else in the room. He lowered the needle, picked up his box and retreated through the kitchen.

It was a slower song. Lilly listened, distracted by her friends slipping into their coats and shoes. The lulling verses were interrupted by a near violent, screaming chorus and then the wave rolled back. Before the song was over, Mimi was already waiting in one of the cars, having puked on the driveway a bile tinted puddle of maroon. The rest of them, tired and transitioning into hangover, hugged Lilly, apologized for Mimi’s behavior, and left.

Lilly picked up the album cover of the record her father had put on. There was Bruce staring back at her. The eyes looked different than she remembered, bearing only the vaguest resemblance of the man she had been with. It didn’t seem possible that time could change a face so much. But everyone, she supposed, inevitably became a different person.

 Jason Kniep is a writer living in Lawrence, KS. He has recently published in Unlikely Stories Mark V, Cease, Cows and elsewhere. On Twitter @nutmutton.

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