February 1, 2015

FICTION BY ADAM MATSON "DAIRY QUEEN"

 Adam Matson is originally a native of Acton, MA, and he now resides in Malibu, CA. His short stories have been published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Broadkill Review, Happy Magazine, and The Cynic Online Magazine. He has also published a collection of short stories called Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).




 
Dairy Queen

    I had just ordered three scoops of maple walnut on a sugar cone, and was about to take the first tongue-tingling lick, when the fight broke out across the parking lot. Everyone at the Dairy Queen turned to look at the shouting girl.
    “You never listen to me! Never! That’s what I’m fucking talking about!”
    My brother Paul was particularly interested. The screaming girl was Marcy Frick, who had graduated high school a couple of years ahead of Paul. In school Marcy had been a head-turner, and also, as this evening’s incident seemed to be proving, a head-case. Marcy was the sort of girl who laughed loudly at everybody’s jokes. And I mean everybody’s. Saner people, I’ve learned, laugh more discriminately.
    Nervous parents shuffled around their children, trying to hold ice cream cones while protecting the virgin ears of the young from Marcy’s profanity. Marcy’s boyfriend, an older guy with a stringy black ponytail, did not look like the kind of man who let himself be yelled at in public.
    I was still in high school, and public fights were exciting to me. Isla slipped her hand into mine and gazed at Marcy and Ponytail Man with a half-cocked grin. But Paul decided to do something. He handed me his ice cream cone and headed purposefully across the parking lot.
    “Maybe that’s why you’re so fucking dumb!” Marcy shouted at her man, whose fists were now clenched.
My heart beat faster as Paul approached them. My brother was no tough guy. He was a sophomore in college, an English Lit major who had just discovered Hunter Thompson and David Foster Wallace. A few good books had given him a page or two of perspective, but he was not someone who could stroll into an altercation and turn the boiler down.
“Are you going to help him?” Isla asked in a whisper.
“Let’s see where it goes,” I said.
As Paul held up a diplomatic hand, the boyfriend snatched a pink-dyed streak of Marcy’s hair. She shrieked as he yanked her to the ground by her scalp. Paul was on him in an instant, wrenching the man’s free arm behind his back, a move he probably had learned somewhere but had not practiced much, since the man let go of Marcy’s pink hair and whirled around to cuff Paul in the face.
Isla gasped, and my heart did a little cold flutter. I started over toward the fight, ice cream in hand, but the incident ended before I got five steps. Two adult men jumped in and grabbed Ponytail, pinning him against the hood of his own truck. I could not hear what they said to him, but one of them was about 6’4”, two-forty, and whispered something close to Ponytail’s ear that convinced Ponytail to chill out.
Marcy sat on the ground, sobbing now that she’d been rescued, cursing out her boyfriend and clutching her wounded pink stripe of hair. Paul took a step toward her, seemingly oblivious to the red mark on his face, and gently touched her arm. She yanked it away, but he remained by her side, speaking softly to her, and after a few minutes she chilled out too.

I stood in the Dairy Queen parking lot in the hot summer evening, ice cream dripping down my hand, thinking how the fight had happened so quickly, wondering if everyone would now return to normal, licking their cones at the old red picnic tables next to their cars.
Marcy left Dairy Queen walking, while the two older men ran interference on Ponytail. Paul, his purpose expended, returned to us. He retrieved his sticky ice cream cone from me, stared at it as if he could not remember ordering it, then sat down to eat.
“How’d that go?” I asked, my heart still thrumming with adrenalin.
Paul shrugged, staring off in the direction where Marcy had departed.
“Did you know her in school?” Isla asked.
“I knew her,” Paul said. “She was cool, but I always felt sorry for her. Always kind of liked her.”
Marcy Frick, Flatville, Indiana’s Calamity Jane. To Paul’s self-imagined Bill Hickok? Who knows.


Years later Paul graduated from college and inexplicably joined the Army. All he would tell us was that he wanted to serve his country. My father was annoyed that they had wasted so much money on college. My mother was glad he had found a job in the service. She came from a military family.
I didn’t know what to do after college so I started working at my father’s hardware store in Flatville. My father hoped I would one day take over the store from him.
Isla finished her degree and returned to Flatville to teach third grade. We got an apartment and moved in together, started passing the seasons.
Paul returned from his tour in the Army and settled into his old bedroom in our parents’ house, the attic room, where he spent all day reading and playing video games. In three months he almost never left the house, except for midnight missions to the Easy Lounge on Flatville’s south side, and Jem’s Bar on the north side. The Easy Lounge was prowling grounds for Flatville’s divorced, Virginia-Slim-smoking cougars, while Jem’s catered to bikers, mill workers, and other callus-knuckled townies. What the two bars had in common was whiskey, which was what Paul was after.
Paul told me a thing or two about his tours in Afghanistan, and the stories were not uplifting. On one occasion he had been recalled from a training exercise at the last minute and sent into the mountains on reconnaissance, where two of the eight marines in his squad were killed by a sniper. When he returned to base he learned that the training exercise he would have attended had gone horribly wrong. Eight men had boarded a helicopter to practice belay drops. There was a malfunction in the engine block; the helicopter crashed fifteen seconds after take-off, killing everyone on board.
On another day in Afghanistan Paul told me he had surprised a Taliban soldier coming out of a house with an AK-47. Paul instinctively raised his own rifle and squeezed the trigger. The short burst of ammunition at such close range literally ripped the man’s face off and emptied the contents of his head onto the front steps of the house. The exposed brains looked like a sea creature, Paul said.
The worst part about Afghanistan, according to my brother, was the prevalence and unpredictability of roadside bombs. One second a truck would be driving along under the sun, the next second the earth would shake and the truck would vanish in a cloud of thick black smoke and dust. Paul said eventually you learned to stop fearing the I.E.D.’s and accept the fact that your fate was entirely beyond your control.
He seemed prepared for roadside bombs back in Flatville too. When you believed you could die at any moment, things like getting a job and paying your cell phone bill lost their sense of urgency.
My mother called me on a warm Thursday night after I had returned from the store. I had been dozing in front of the TV. Isla was curled up on the couch, staring at her laptop. Domestic life moved slowly, I had learned.
“You need to come get Paul,” my mother said. “He’s driving me crazy.”
“What happened?”
“The Comcast kept freezing, so he took the box apart. Now we don’t have TV.”
I heard Paul say something in the background, and I imagined him hunched over the cable box with a screwdriver, as if trying to disarm a bomb.
“What do you want me to do with him?” I asked.
“Just get him out of my hair.” Her voice left the phone. “You are driving me crazy…. You are not fixing it.” She returned with a sigh. “Please, Sam. Take him to Dairy Queen, or something. I’ll pay.”
“I have money.”
“Fine.”
I looked at Isla. She was smiling at me, had been smiling at me a lot since last night.
“Mom, I have some news,” I said.
“What?”
Isla sat up quickly, shaking her head. “In person,” she whispered.
“I have to tell you in person,” I said. Isla nodded.
“Fine. Please come get your brother.”
We hung up.
“What’s wrong?” Isla asked.
I shrugged. As if it was only one thing. “We have to take Paul out for ice cream.”
“We can tell him our news.” She grinned excitedly.
We got in the car and drove the five easy minutes to my parents’ house. The sun was setting behind their looming oak trees. Soon it would be dark. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car.
Inside my mother had worked herself into a fit. She paced the living room raving about the TV. My father stood with his hands on his hips, observing with a craftsman’s air as Paul sat on the floor dismantling the Comcast box.
“Why didn’t you just call the customer service number?” my mother demanded.
Paul stared at her, considering the question. “It’s too late,” he said.
I glanced at Isla and we both knew that this was not the time to share our news with everyone. Now was the time to run interference on Paul. I knelt down on the floor beside my brother. “Come on, bud. Let’s go for a drive.”
My father nodded at me, his face unreadable. “Sam, tomorrow remind me to call Flatville Propane. We’re out at the store.”
“Oh, Phil, for god’s sake, who cares?” my mother said. “Look at the television!”
There was no picture on the TV, and judging by the mess of scattered electronics on the carpet, they would miss the night’s episode of Wheel of Fortune.
“Mom, this is a simple operation,” Paul said, showing her a circuit board.
“Paul, you need to get out of my house right now, or I’ll throw you out for good.”
Isla gently reached down and took my brother’s arm. “We’re going for ice cream,” she said. “Come with us.”
Paul smiled at her, and I was grateful that he was still able to smile about something. The robotic expression he had honed in the Army hardly ever seemed to leave his face. He stood and found a sweatshirt and sneakers, pulled them on.
“Take your time,” my mother said, her clenched fists clutching her hair.
Isla took Paul’s arm and guided him out of the house.
“Propane,” my father repeated to me, as if that was the evening’s primary concern.
Once in the car Paul slumped into the back seat and stared out the window.
“What was going on with the Comcast box?” I asked, not trying to stir up trouble, just not sure what else to say.
“I don’t know,” Paul said. “Guess I just wanted to see what was inside.” He slumped down further in his seat, as if afraid someone might see him. “You know, I learned how to diffuse I.E.D.’s over there. I figured I could fix the damn cable box.”
He leaned forward, resting his arm on my seat. “You know it’s not uncommon for rebel men living in the mountains in Afghanistan to hold hands when they’re out on patrol? Isn’t that weird?” He tapped Isla’s shoulder with a closed fist. “Soldiers holding hands. You could almost laugh. If they weren’t trying to kill you.”
Isla squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you’re not in Afghanistan now, Paul,” she said.
I saw Isla staring at me expectantly, and I knew she wanted me to tell him our news, but I shook my head. This was not the time. I’m not sure what kind of time this was. I kept thinking that maybe one day in ten or twenty years Isla and I would be married, have kids, Paul would have come out of his funk, married someone, gotten a job, and maybe we all would think back to Paul’s months of readjustment as just a short, troubled interlude.
“Nothing I learned over there means anything back here,” Paul said. “I keep looking around at people and all I can think is how easy it would be to kill them.”
Isla stared straight ahead at the road now, maybe finally realizing that our news would have to wait.
I wanted to say something to ease his mind, but the best I could come up with was: “Try not to think the Army, Paul. Just think about what flavor ice cream you want.”
Paul ducked further down into the seat.
“What are you hiding from back there?” I asked, no longer able to ignore his behavior.
“Well,” he said with a sigh. “I’m actually glad to get out of the house tonight. She’s been trying to track me down for two days.”
At first I thought he meant Mom, but that would not make sense. “Who?” I asked.
“Marcy.”
Oh yes. Marcy Frick still lived in Flatville, predictably, had gained about thirty pounds, had a three year-old (father unknown to me), and was a regular at Jem’s Bar. The Flatville bar scene was the post-high-school romantic equalizer. The girls you lusted after as a frolicking youth became townies, swelled by alcohol and inertia, at long last readily available.
“What happened with Marcy?” I asked.
“I slipped one past the goaltender,” Paul said.
Isla turned and stared at him. “She’s pregnant?”
That’s what the goaltender analogy means, I thought, irritably.
“I was drunk and lonely…” Paul said. “But she’s crazy. And I don’t want a kid. I fucked up.”
We arrived at the Dairy Queen, where a dozen American families were mainlining thick, creamy towers of frozen ecstasy. I got out of the car and walked toward the ice cream stand, staring hard at the flavor board, as if it would save me from Paul’s spiraling calamities and Isla’s imploring glances.
Isla, behind me, led Paul by the arm as if he were an invalid. How had we all seemed to age so quickly, I wondered? We weren’t even thirty. “Paul, we have to tell you our big news,” I heard Isla saying, and I prayed she wouldn’t do it now, not on the heels of Paul’s sudden paternal ignominy.
I ordered my old reliable, Maple Walnut, while Isla ordered French vanilla and Paul selected some certifiably insane flavor called Heavenly Hurricane, a blend of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, swirled with caramel, almonds, Oreo Cookie Crumbs and M&M’s.
“That’s an I.E.D. right there,” I told my brother.
“Watch me dismantle it,” he said.
We moved off from the stand, brushing evening mosquitoes from our faces, and settled into an unoccupied picnic table beneath a maple tree. I was just about to take that first luscious, sugary bite of my cone when a rust-pocketed Volkswagen Fox sputtered into the parking lot.
“Shit,” Paul muttered.
Marcy Frick erupted from the Volkswagen and scanned the parking lot with a scolding eye.
“How did she find us?” I asked.
“Reconnaissance,” Paul said.
Meaning, of course, she must have gone to the house first. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket, and when I reached down to check the message from Mom, it confirmed Paul’s instinct: “Frick girl looking for you guys. Not happy.”
Thanks for the intel, Mom. Marcy spotted us and stalked over. The queen of ice cream stand drama wasted no time with redundant preamble or accusations and simply swatted Paul across the face. Paul’s head whipped back, but he deftly caught her next attempted blow, squeezing her wrist and digging his fingers into her tendons.
“Fucker!” she shrieked, kicking him in the shin. They both went down in the dirt, spilling Heavenly Hurricane everywhere, M&M’s sticking to their clothes. There was no saving my own ice cream cone, so I dropped it and dove into the scrum.
“Knock me up and then try to pay me off!?” Marcy wailed. “I’ll kill you!”
Paul was not the same boy he had been in college, cocky with dumb confidence. Now he had learned to fight, which I could tell by the cool way he absorbed her blows, his arms firmly bent to protect his face. But he did not hit her back, and made little effort to stop her. So I grabbed her around the chest from behind, pinning her arms to her sides, flattening her to the ground like that crazy Australian guy from TV wrestling a crocodile. Marcy flailed and spat and huffed, but couldn’t shake me. She smelled like cigarettes and those papery perfume scents they insert into women’s magazines.
“Cool it, Marcy,” I said, squeezing her body harder. She released a squeak and tried to call for help, but lost her breath. “I’ll let you up,” I told her. “But you be cool.”
Gradually I released my grip and she slithered out of my arms, stood shakily to her feet. Paul stared at her without apology or concern, without much expression at all.
“You fucker,” she sobbed, reverting to schoolgirl sympathy tactics. “You can’t pay me off. I’m a Christian and I will never have an abortion!”
If all the heads in the parking lot had not been turned toward us already, they certainly were now. Marcy seemed to revel in the audience, wiping snot from her nose and glaring at Paul.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I just think we made a mistake.”
“I made a mistake fucking you,” Marcy spat.
“Marcy, honey, let’s all go somewhere quiet and we can talk about this,” Isla offered.
“Fuck all of you,” Marcy said. She pointed a finger at Paul. “I’m keeping it.”
She stalked back to her car, fired the engine with a roar, and screeched out of the parking lot, kicking up a mushroom cloud of dust in her wake.
Slowly the heads of the other ice cream stand patrons turned away from us, and the families returned, murmuring, to their desserts.
Paul sat down at the picnic table, his eyes vacant, his body tense and firm. I sat down beside him, said nothing.
“So I tried to give her some money,” Paul said in a low voice. “Didn’t work, I guess.”
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t make child support payments. I don’t even have a job.” He sighed. Mosquitoes buzzed around his face, but he did not seem to notice them. “I thought I’d be so happy to get out of the Army and back to Flatville,” he said. “But I’m totally lost here.”
Isla sat down on the other side of him, took his hand and rubbed it between hers. “We’ll figure everything out,” she said. “It’s just a rough time right now.”
I loved her, and I wanted to believe her, but it was hard. My heart was pounding, my vision narrowed to a hot tunnel. In the back of my mind I thought of Paul’s hypothetical child, and the luckless life it would someday lead.
“Hey, Paul, guess what?” Isla said, squeezing his hand, and I knew it was coming. There was no such thing as the right time. “Sam and I got engaged.”
Paul didn’t seem to hear her at first, then a quiet grin crept across his face. He looked at her, then at me, and I nodded. “Well,” he said, staring down at his ruined ice cream in the dirt. “That’s great.”


About a week later Paul rejoined the military. He said it was where he belonged.
He missed the wedding. Called about two weeks later to offer his congratulations. Told us he’d been on a mission somewhere he couldn’t talk about.
Marcy Frick went ahead and had the baby. I saw her around town occasionally, walking down Main Street, shopping at Kmart. She never acknowledged me, and I wondered what she would tell the kid about his father’s family. That he had an uncle and grandparents right here in Flatville? Would we all one day reconcile?
A roadside bomb finally got Paul about two years into his tour. The Army informed us a month later. Paul and his unit had been somewhere they couldn’t talk about, and the details we got from the Gov’ment didn’t answer many questions. We never even got his body, just his personal affects and the usual military souvenirs, a flag and some metal whatnot.
Following Paul’s death I became enshrouded in what Isla called “a deep gloom.” She tried to get me to talk about it, but I didn’t, then tried to wheedle it out of me by complaining, which didn’t work. I thought the fog would lift eventually, but it never really did.
Isla stopped complaining, and after a few dark seasons her mood changed too. I should have taken this for a signal, but I missed it, possibly on purpose. It then came to light (I’ll spare you the tedious, drunken details) that Isla had a brief affair with another teacher at the elementary school, Tim Spiel. “I was lonely and frustrated,” Isla said. “And so was he.”
I knew Tim Spiel as an acquaintance. Had seen him at school functions. He was a middle-aged, balding sad man, married to a plump Christian wife, with two kids. I would have understood if some knight had come along and swept Isla up with chocolate and promises, but Tim Spiel was a loser. And I could tell a loser because that’s what I was becoming. At twenty-eight I was a paunchy store clerk, punching a clock- nobody’s hero.
To sew up the marital rift Isla and I went ahead and had a baby. The baby served as an excellent deflector for our problems. We named her Meghan, and I loved her, this small creature whom it was now my duty and honor to protect. I wanted to be close to my child, present for her the way Paul could never be present for his own kid, now being strollered around town by the Shrew of Flatville. I wanted Meghan to have a good American life.
One night when the baby was about one and just starting to teeth, Isla and I took her to the Dairy Queen. It was a ceremonial treaty for us. That night we had had one of our many recurring arguments, the origin of which was as mysterious to me as it was trivial. We both needed ice cream, the universal emotional unguent.
Now I was one of the dads pushing the stroller as we approached the flavor board. Isla distractedly toed the dirt with her sneaker. I decided I would get a large size of whatever flavor seemed to provide the most hideous sugar bomb, Chocolate Fudge Heath Bar Oreo or something.
We sat down at one of the eternal red picnic tables and began to eat, when suddenly Isla looked up, her face frozen with dread.
Partly because I was exhausted from arguing, and partly because I no longer cared much about things that bothered her, I did not ask what was wrong. Instead I turned lazily and followed her gaze, until I saw a family across the parking lot at another table.
Tim Spiel. Nonchalantly sloughing away at an ice cream cone like it was just another one of life’s chores, his permed hausfrau and chocolate-smeared children beside him. I felt the old adrenalin surge of youth, the football field craze of the guy with the ball coming at you. Suddenly I was angry about Isla’s affair, about her and Tim’s fleeting pity-fucks, and ashamed of myself for failing the girl I had loved since we were fourteen. Tim Spiel looked exactly the way I felt, bulging with unselfconscious surrender as he quietly gorged himself on frozen narcotic. For a moment I thought of Paul, and the recklessness at the essence of his being. Now Paul was dead, and I would soldier on through life without him, never fully understanding the truth of things.
I stood up and marched across the parking lot.
“Sam,” Isla said wearily.
I ignored her, strode up to Tim Spiel and threw down my ice cream cone like some kind of absurd gauntlet.
Spiel looked up at me with innocent, boyish wonder, like I had awoken him from a daydream. “Hello, Sam,” he said.
“Spiel,” I spat, my fists clenched and stinging. “I never did thank you for fucking my wife.”
This ridiculous line, straight out of the Elmore Leonard novels I’d been force-feeding myself lately, had little effect on the sad man. Spiel’s wife looked more hurt than he did, and I felt like a raging jackass, but it was too late to stop now. I threw a half-assed haymaker at Spiel and it caught his ice cream cone before his face. He went down with a heavy thud. Both his wife and Isla started yelling at me as I crashed to the ground on top of him, hammering him with my fists, determined to knock the injustice of the world out of his mouth and nose.
Sooner than I would have expected I felt a force yank me off the whimpering Spiel and as I came out of my dark cloud I found myself staring at Nike sneakers, my face pressed into the dirt, someone’s knee in my back.
“Let me the fuck up,” I hissed.
“Okay, man, but just calm down,” said a young-sounding male voice.
The pressure released from my back and I stood shakily. I saw two teenagers, probably seniors in high school, scrawny in a youthful way but standing with the field-worn discipline of line-backers. They stared at me with a mixture of adolescent defiance and primal uncertainty. Would I take a swing at these two boys? Absolutely not. The fight had gone out of me, and they were kids, for God’s sake.
Isla stood half-way across the parking lot glaring at me open-mouthed, her distance perhaps indicating that she was thinking of leaving me for good right then and there. Tim Spiel lay on the ground with a bloody nose, his wife dutifully pressing recycled paper napkins against his face.
Everyone at the Dairy Queen was watching me, wondering if the fight was over. It was. This one, anyway. The two teenaged jocks returned to their circle of friends with a swagger I remembered from the not-too-distant past, and I knew they were riding high on a thunderous wave of adrenalin. As I slumped back across the parking lot toward my own family, defeated, guilt-ridden and slightly-panicked, I knew also what those kids must be thinking: that they would never turn into someone like me.

~Adam Matson~

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