The Limit

By J. Scott Hardin

Part One

The old man had left with the dawn, gone home quietly – mercifully, without saying a word.  Doubtless he thought his son was asleep.  The young man’s back had been turned to him, but his eyes were open, staring at the dim light that crept closer with the sunrise.  He had been studying its advance between the gaps in the polished, worn floorboards of the shotgun house.

It was the first time Aaron had ever seen a glow beneath flooring, but that is how houses are built in New Orleans, on stilts to allow for flooding.  After the sun had made enough profit on its margin of time for inches among the shadows, he could make out clumps and clods of dirt as they slowly revealed themselves on the inky bottom.

Bright rays peeked through slits in the blinds, showing the far side of the room in oblique ladders.  Aaron had never been particularly good at judging time, mainly on account of long-standing confusions about the simple things, like the difference between a minute and a moment.  The floor was damp where he had been lying, and it seemed to him a long time before he found the motivation to sit up.

Unpacked boxes loomed like unrenovated buildings in a dark slum, and as he crossed his wrists over his knees, Aaron stared at the recently evacuated mattress.  It was bare except for his navy overcoat, the makeshift blanket his father had used for the night.  It seemed impossible to him, sweating in the August heat, that the heavy garment would ever again see a proper service.

His father thought he was lazy, and of course that was true.  But it was not the kind of laziness of lounging about on the couch all weekend, drinking beer and watching sports.  Indeed, that was exactly the kind of laziness the old man would have understood.  It was the kind of thing that could be tolerated, a form of normalcy that was at least manly.  That alone might have lent a chance that the two could have come to terms with one another on a patch of common ground.

A box of cigarettes lay on the floor nearby.  He picked it up.  A quick shake determined three or four souls had remained, wayward tenants clinging together inside their black paper hovel.  A plastic lighter had to be somewhere in the neighborhood.  When he found it, Aaron lit a cigarette.

His father had been a bona fide hippie, – or at least he had dressed like one, inhaled and ingested psychedelics like one and made epic pilgrimages to see Joplin like one.  Aaron had seen a few old pictures of the skinny, long-haired waif wearing hemp necklaces and shredded trousers.  Two or three times, he had heard tales of an itinerant hobo making the circuit of pastoral communes and swimming with unshaved women.

But, despite all the broken laws and the legions of challenged mores, his father had never really been an anti-government man.  He wasn’t among those who, for reasons of conscience or cowardice, had burned their draft cards.  He was proud of his tour of duty in Vietnam, especially the cultivation of discipline that came from army life.

Since retirement, such cultivation generally consisted of home improvements and hobby projects related to wood.  By this time, he had diversified his portfolio with a well-advised selection of mid-yield mutual funds, various stocks and a partial investment in a second house.  Bankers, of course, remained “pansies” in his view of the world, but money was money.

He had also developed a persistent twitch in his left shoulder and stuck doggedly to a short, stocky third wife.  Not that the woman was inherently mean or wretched, but she often left that impression because of her cackling laugh and badly bent nose.  Beneath this nasal monstrosity yammered a peculiarly irritating sack of whining, interminable explications about nothing whatsoever.  It could all too easily be about the embroidered lining of a set of bedroom drapes or the appreciation in the value of a chipped yellow lamp.  Countryside antique and junk stores throughout the Southwest were a constant source of stupid fascination.

What Aaron could not understand was how his father, a brooding soul who had become more and more reticent over the last twenty-five years, could tolerate on a daily basis this mellifluous megaphone of monotony.  The old man always slept in the guest room, unless they had company, beside a picture of his ancient mother.  His company otherwise consisted of one of the esteemed chipped lamps and drapes with an evidently important lining.  It was a cold room, too, and it seemed a cold life, remote from the vitality of the man in the memories.  The man in the memories seemed so far removed from the dusty calcification of today that he may as well have been the man on the moon.

The past five days had been a strain.  The long drive from San Francisco was made longer by five A.M. wakeup calls, the hot summer pounding against windshield’s insect graveyard and a full weekend spent in the company of the hook nose at the family home in Albuquerque.  Aaron had felt obliged to smile and make polite inquiries from time to time at her annoyingly detailed babblings, while his maintained a glazed-over look to pass the time.  For the life of him, he could not get how the old man put up with it.

Is it is one thing to write off another man’s fate as not one’s own, some foreign destiny that does not apply; quite another, for the first time and thereafter with creeping dread, to discover that fate itself is bigger than a single man.  At thirty, Aaron embarked on that strange journey that thinking men must always make.  With a morbid curiosity, he began to contemplate seriously his own death.  He considered also in his father’s silent tolerance the guarded, now sullen vestige of a traveler long gone down the road of dusty resignation.  He questioned the adage that age breeds wisdom.  For the people he knew, the mind atrophied as the body wrinkled on.

After they had arrived in the Big Easy and unloaded the trailer, the old man finally said in falsetto:  “Jesus, a couple of times there, I didn’t think you were gonna make it.”

Aaron returned a withering expression.  His father knew he was edgy.  There was no use hiding it, but an outright complaint would be an invitation to mockery.  He knew what his father had meant:  I didn’t think you were gonna make it, boy.

The point made, the old man went on to talk about the humidity and how he would never live in a swamp, about the flying roaches here and how they paled in comparison to the insect world of Southeast Asia, above all about the fact that he had not seen very many white people in town.  Around these parts, he continued, a man would have to watch his tail.  A city like this was strange.  He looked through the windows and out past the foliage when he said these things, squinted eyes scanning up and down the street, grappling with the possibility of unknown enemies.

It reminded Aaron of a walk they had taken along the beach when he was about ten.  “Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean, boy.”  That and having to walk fast to keep up were all he remembered of it.  Searching for some kind of meaning in this sage augury, he had ever since gazed into the waves whenever he came to the ocean, following their trail to the horizon, where he could see no further.  Even as an adult, despite the feeling of foolishness that sometimes accompanied it, Aaron persisted in this superstitious practice.  It became a kind of ritual to him, offering him the little flirtations that always lie behind a good mystery.

Now the old man was gone, and Aaron was alone.  He ate some bread and found the ingredients to start a pot of coffee.  While it brewed, he meandered up and down the five rooms.  In three weeks, his wife and infant son would be flying out, plenty of time to put the place in order.  There was no hurry, no need to rush.

Three weeks with no screaming in the night, with none of her suspicions and superstitions, with no fighting.  This would be the first time in a while he would be without the loud, plaintive noises of attachment – of ownership. The marriage was hell before it even started.  It had been her price to bring the baby to New Orleans.  Marry me, or we’re staying here.  You don’t really want a kid.  You’re free.  Just go.  That is what she had said, so he made arrangements for a four-hundred dollar wedding package in Reno.  A couple of the cheapest Wal-Mart rings he could find.  No formal proposal.

He had to account for his relationship with his own old man, whom he had seen several summers growing up. He accepted this Trojan Horse with a kind of naïve resolve.  She had lied to him about using contraception, and if he thought he might have loved her once, he never felt anything near that since.

The fellowship to the University was to be the reward.  The brass ring.  The big banana.  Of six applications to graduate school, it was the only offer and easily the best.  A couple hundred thousand in tuition and stipends – the kind of professional ticket that Aaron knew would only come once in a lifetime.  He had no idea where he was going from one step to the next oftentimes, but he knew a guiding star when he saw one.

Or at least he thought he did.  Sometimes in the middle of the night, when the baby drifted off for a little while and the arguments, too, had grown tired and gone to sleep, the trusted star seemed to dim.  At these times, breathing in the darkness, Aaron found himself musing on the fact that the light of a star might take thousands or millions of years to make its journey to the human eye. It might disappear from the skies one night, vanish without a trace.  Then what?

People always say that some things are timeless, but Aaron had never really bought into it.  Instead he tried, and not all that convincingly, to wrap his mind around what the scientists call frames of reference.  People say the sun and the sky and the stars last forever, but that is only because in that way they can make some headway for themselves in terms of an eighty-year lifespan.  To a gnat with a number of hours allotted between life and death, Aaron was fairly certain that a light bulb left on absentmindedly would amount to the glow of a lifetime. He envied the gnat who worshipped his bulb.  The bulb was a constant, pouring out its radiance onto giddy, gathering crowds.

The cigarette had died out.  There was a day to be had in this strange land.  He dug through his pockets and dumped the crumpled papers and coins on the kitchen table.  Picking through the past week’s shorts and jeans, he found a half-pack of the old man’s Marlboro Reds, various sundry change, and a ten-dollar bill.  Emptying out his wallet, he scooped everything into a mound on the corner of the table, forming a pile that summed up his net worth.

Sixty-four dollars.

It would be nine days until his family arrived.  Quick division informed him he would have about seven bucks a day, but this was the first time he was to live beyond the West Coast, and it would be pathetic to sit around coddling every little coin.  Besides, he had left his wife with over a grand.  So why shouldn’t he indulge himself with his pittance?

A trip through the Gulf Coast, now that was something.  He would stock up on smokes and make it all the way to the Atlantic with any luck.  On the other hand, there was the getting back part.  Dim memories of gas prices he had seen in town and a quick calculation for mileage offered a more sobering probability than the Atlantic.  Still, he wondered how close he could get.

No matter what, he was going to have to call his wife, and that necessity gave him enough pause to sit at the table and stir the change around a little.  A nickel pushed its way through its fellows and swirled back absently, subject to the whimsical repartee of a dejected finger.  It was a poor distraction from the eventuality of that call, but the dance of it lasted a good while.  He was subject to forces beyond his control.  He didn’t really want to call her, but he had about as much say in it as the nickel.  Swirl about as it might, it was going to be collected in the end.

Aaron rummaged around a few boxes until he found clothes that passed the smell test.  He put on some raggedy looking shoes and carefully gathered up the things he would need.  Wallet.  License.  Cigarettes and lighter.  Glasses.  Keys.  He folded up the cash and shoved it in his front pocket.  Then he scooped up the change and looked around for something to put it in.

He heard rapping at the door.  He tore himself away from the dark smudge on the kitchen wall he had gotten himself lost in, and he marched to the front door.

Tap, tap, CLAP.  Again, again, aGAIN.

His irritation as he opened it faded instantly.  The dirty tip of an old wooden cane confronted his line of sight, poised to clock him right between the eyes.  It lowered to reveal a pellucid, knobby hand and an even more pellucid and knobby face.

The man must have been past ninety.  He pulled back the limb and extended the other hand. Aaron grasped its cold, clammy skin.

“Well hallow thar,” the man enunciated.  “Name’s Henry.  Henry Mason.  I’m yah naybah, ragh t’ovah in that blue house ovah theyah.”

His stick lifted to the general direction of the house on the corner as he released his fishy grasp.

“The blue’n, see?”

“Aaron Tavenner.  Nice to meet you.”  He looked on uncomfortably as the cane lingered.

“Well I kin see yah noo herebahts.  Wheyahyah from?”

“Oh, I just moved here from California.”

“Calahfownya . . . hmm?”  His pale eyes gazed off at some distant land.  “Well, that’s jus’ fahn.”

Aaron shifted the coins uncomfortably among pools of sweat building in his palm.  “It was a pretty long trip,” he redirected.

“Oh.  Oh, well yesss, I s’pose ih t’wood be thah.”  Mister Mason cleared his throat loudly and leaned in.  “Well, I notice you got a strollah while you was ah loadin’ yessstahday.  Got yahself a familee?”

“Yes, my wife and my son are flying here in a week or so.  It’ll give me time to fix the place up.”

“Ah, well uh littah familee, nah that’s jus’ fahn.  Real fahn.  An I’m shah they’ll be alraht heeyah, of cause they wheel.  But jus’.   You.  Mahn.  Theeyis.  Care.  Fuh.  Like.”

A tamping of cane on sidewalk punctuated these last words abruptly.  Indeed, Mister Mason seemed to use his crutch as a kind of grammar.

Aaron wondered if he might have understood just the cane, if the man hadn’t spoken at all.  As the cane swooped across the air, he knew his neighbor had now come to his point.

“Porch monkeys,” he said.  “Theeyis naybah’hood is plain full ah theyem.  All arahn, but pahticulahly dahn theyah.”

Aaron followed the trajectory of the cane all the way down the street.  He quizzically scanned the trees for movement.  Before the trip, he had perused a map of the city.  He remembered that the Audubon Zoo was fairly close to where he lived, perhaps only a mile or two.  He thought to ask Mister Mason if he had called whatever animal protection services authorities, but this was a totally different world to him, a strange humid swampland with who knew what customs or rules.

Sensing Aaron’s confusion, Mister Mason bent forward conspiratorially so he could make his point explicit.

“Raht ovah theyah.  Theyah, theyah.  You kin see ‘em plain as day.”  The cane stabbed harshly at a house at the end of the block.

Aaron studied those trees with intensity born of insecurity.  He looked and looked again.

“Theyah.  Raht theyah!”

And he understood.  Mister Mason meant the two black men sitting on the front porch of the house at the far end of the street.  They were smoking and sitting close to one another, in the middle of conversation.

“You kin see, nah cayn’tchyah?”

A wave of nausea passed over Aaron. He felt each and every last bead of sweat dribbling down his body.  He shivered and heard a few coins bounce off the pavement. Mister Mason drew up a look of jen-yoo-wine concern.

“Well, see heeyah nah, you dropped yah monay.  Raht theyah.”

“I have to go,” Aaron mustered.  “I’m sorry.”  He walked around the ancient native and fished for his keys.

“I wasn’t suggestin’ anythin’ to worrahyah ovah.”

He got the car door open and started the engine.

“It’ll be fahn, just keep an eye aht . . . .”

Aaron peeled out, away from the cane and the sweat and the porch monkeys.  He remembered a grocery store with a payphone nearby, but he drove the wrong way in a random zigzag through poor neighborhoods with unknown calumnies.

After a short time, he ended up in the projects.  There he found the streets and corners full of some of the hardest looks he had ever seen, where invariably everyone stopped whatever they were doing to stare at him.

At first, Aaron looked back.  It reminded him of bullies, the kind seen on any elementary school playground.  They had that type of calculating stare, waiting for the faintest whiff of weakness that forecast the brutal pounce.  When two of them without shirts crossed the street into his path, gazes critical and unrelenting, he turned sharply down a side street.  It was a dead end.

Aaron hit the brakes hard, and the tires screeched a little.  The two men were almost upon him, and in a panic he accelerated into a fast U-Turn and almost fishtailed.  He clipped the curb and heard a loud bang on the back of the car.

“Where you at?” the man shouted.  “Whachu gon’ do?”

Aaron turned clumsily back onto the main road and looked behind.  The black man’s arms were open wide, and he kept on yelling through a flash of smiling white teeth.

“Whachu gon’ do?”

It was clear to him that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He sped away, past the brick buildings with their symmetrical lawns and walkways.  His search for any semblance of a stoplight also served efficiently as a means of avoiding all eye contact.

One light soon led to another, and he followed them like beacons until at last he found a main expressway, replete with stores and gas stations and a few taller buildings.  He drove along this thoroughfare for several miles, keeping watch for a name he could remember from the map.  When he noticed a street car in the distance, he knew he had made it to St. Charles Street, two blocks from his house.  This was progress.

He slowed to a crawl at the crossing of the tracks, searching into the distance both ways.  He was not able to determine which direction to choose, so he pulled into a parking lot.  He was becoming hungry, and he thought wanly that he had probably wasted enough gas or, more aptly, enough gas money.

J.B.’s Grocery was just up the street.  It was a smallish building, fronted by large window panes that had been mostly pasted on the inside with newspapers depicting colorful fruits, vegetables and meats.  Many of the words on them were strange to him, like “roux” and “okra” and “jambalaya”.

That last had a huge bowl with whitish rice topped by heaps of other unknown substances.  A closer inspection showed a series of arrows that pointed to a number of cartoonish clouds.  Inside each cloud was one of the main ingredients of the jambalaya dish, including Creole tomatoes, bay leaves, celery, sausage and also a more suspicious grouping entitled “cubed meats”.

One of the larger sections on display showed an enormous white powdered pastry called a “beignet” that looked soft, silky and unquestionably delicious.  Huge lettering above it offered a bold pronouncement:  LAGNIAPPE.  Whatever else happened today, he was going to eat one of those Lagniappes made of beignet.

He opened the door of the rundown grocery and crossed a dingy aisle that led to the deli at the back.  A young man with an apron looked up from the meat counter expectantly.

“Hey sah, what kin I git fo’ yah?  We got us some uh that gooood low tide shrimp in da gumbo tahday.  Mmm!  It’s fixin’ to be just fine.”

Aaron hesitated, trying to piece the words together.

“Gumbo?”

“What we got here in this gumbo?”  The young man – his tag said “Reginald”– passed right over the question and onto his own.  “Nuthin out tha ordinary.  You know, we got us them good bell pepperin, garlic and parsley an all that.  Some cayenne an sausage.  The roux fresh.” Reginald paused a moment, drawing up some gravity.  “But it’s them low tide shrimp’ll make the diffrents.  You want some?”  He pointed over to a big metal pot.

Aaron only understood half the words, and he lacked whatever braveness might cause someone to place an order for the contents in that pot.

“Do you have any sandwiches?”

“Do we got any sandwiches?” Reginald repeated with mock affront.  “Do we got any sandwiches, he says.  Man, we got just about any kinda sandwich there is.  We got po’boys we can make with every kinda meat.  You want a sausage, cutsa beef or a salami?  We got chicken too, if you want.  It ain’t Monday, that’s sure right, but it goes good with a little red beans and rice all the same.”

Reginald eyed his customer for a sign that something had caught the attention of his gullet.  Aaron gestured to a circular bread in the case.

“Ah, you wants a muffuletta.  That’s a mighty good choice, too.”

He started unpacking ingredients from the case and made his way around the back of the deli, picking and choosing and muttering to himself all the while.  Aaron caught bits of it, as much as cadence and slang and variable distance allowed.

“Kayn’t say as we got any mozzarella, no, and we should have, too.  Let’s see what we got in here, some provolone and here, now, what’s even better.  Oh yeah, plenty mortadella.”

Reginald took a big sniff of the cheese and broke into a toothy grin of reverie.

“We got us some Genoa salami, that’s right.”  He pulled out a big slab of it.  “Always gots that.  Some olive oil.  That’s good for the ham.” He paused his preparations for a moment so he could stir the gumbo. “Shudda put a few more scallions up in there.”  He smelled the ladle critically and placed it on the counter.

A few cuts, folds and dabs made quick work of the sandwich, and the young man handed over the smartly wrapped muffuletta and a small cup of olive salad with satisfaction.

“That’s gone be three dollars, lest if there’s somethin else you want.”

Aaron looked at a small sign at the far end of the meat case:  Lagniappe With Every Sandwich Served.

“Well doesn’t it come with some lagnip?” he asked.

“Come with a wha’?”

“Lagnip.”

There was no response.

“Lagnape?  Lagnippy?”

Reginald arched his eyebrow, and Aaron grew embarrassed.

“You know – those bignit pastries. I saw a picture outside.  Little white squares with powdered sugar on them.”

Reginald thought for a moment before making the connection.

“Oh, you mean them beignets right?”

It was French-sounding.  Ben-yay.

“Yeah, it says you get a lagnip with every sandwich.”  Aaron pointed to the sign.

“Oh hey now, that’s lagniappe.”  Lan-yap.  “And you got some uh dat right there with ya muffuletta, hmm?”

He had meant the tiny cup of salad.  It was Aaron’s turn to look confused, and this disarmed his counterpart, who had suspected he might have been trying to swindle something through a complaint.

“Nah, it don’t seem like you get it,” Reginald concluded.  “Lawds not at all.  Where you from, anyways?”

“California.”

“Yeah, that’s plenty far off.  No lagniappe out there, I guess, ‘cept for the women, aight?”

Aaron smiled back at the conspiratorial tone but still did not know exactly what the young man meant.

“Lagniappe.  It mean free.  You know, buy somethin for a price and you fixin to get a free thing widit.  Like a bonus.”

“That sounds fine,” Aaron reasoned aloud.  “In that case, I want a ben-yay.”

“Nah, you got that every kinda wrong.  You done got your lagniappe already.  What you think that olive salad for?  This ain’t no bakery.”

“It looks pretty good.  Are there any places around that have them?”

“Best place you can buy gon be down at Café du Monde.  They open twenty-fuh hour, too.  Real cheap.”

“Where’s that?”

“Where dat?  Where dat, the man says.  Café du Monde down in the Quartah.  You ain’t been to the Quartah yet, I guess.  The French Quartah.  Most famous part uh town, kayn’t be no doubt uh that.”

Aaron had, of course, heard about the French Quarter.  It is probably unreasonable to suppose one could reach the age of thirty without having stumbled upon, at least by way of rumor and conjecture, the raunchy and libidinous tales of women who cultishly and in droves disrobed each year upon payment of cheap, plastic beads.  He had even once seen as an adolescent a documentary on PBS about Mardi Gras.  He remembered bitterly that the production had focused mostly on the cultural history of the parades and which socialites had established what committees whose members inspired various costumes that would ultimately form whatever grand traditions.  He had caught a few scenes of screaming, drunken girls, but the clips had obviously been carefully edited for viewer discretion.

The bastards.

Aaron paid the three dollars and thanked Reginald.  The young man gave him a queer look.

Food in hand, he walked outside and noticed a phone booth around the other side of the store front.  He had not called his wife the day before because the driving and the hotels, the talking with his father every bit as much as the silence, had made him by turns anxious and depressed.

There could be no more procrastination.  It was time to call and to deal with her predictable anger.  He put enough coins in for interstate and waited for the receiver to pick up.  He had begun sweating again in the sunlight.  After several rings, someone picked up but did not say anything.

At last Aaron said hello.

“Oh, now your stupid ass is gonna call me?” she replied in a tone even harsher than the words themselves.

“I called yesterday,” he fumbled, “but you weren’t there.”

“I was here all day watching your son, and I know that’s a fucking lie.”

She was right.  It was a lie.

“Keep the shit up, and you’ll see if we come, Aaron.  I can tell you really give a shit about it.”

Click.

Aaron frowned when he heard the dial tone and the swallowing of the money into the coin box.  He hung up the receiver and dug around for some more change.  The task was made more difficult when he put his wrapped muffuletta and olive salad cup on the shelf where the phonebook was chained.

Slanted.

The food slid off quickly and, as both hands were occupied in pockets, he kept it from falling with a raised knee.  He withdrew them and fiddled with the metal shelving.

Slanted by design.

He leaned in to keep his packages together and in one piece and resumed fishing with one hand only.

Four quarters.

Just a dollar for long distance.

A handful of mostly silver came back out, but several of the coins dropped loudly to the pavement as his knuckles wriggled through a tight maze.  Only sixty-four cents remained, including nine pennies.

A predicament.

If he stopped to pick up the rest of his change, the entire makeshift structure he was holding together would collapse – minus the slanted shelf and its informative prisoner, the chained up yellow pages.  Instead, he put the food on the ground so he could henpeck for the money.  Bending over and dripping sweat on himself and every place he passed over.

But he did find the money.  Coin.  Coin.  Coin.  He heard them slink down into the machine.  Coin.  The phone rang and rang, until he gave up.

He jogged back to the car and retrieved a cigarette, eyeing his food while he lit it.  He was sweating profusely now, and he took long, leisurely drags as he walked back.  Tamping down the rivulets that had crept their way under his shirt, he drew a deep breath and let it out.  He dialed the number and let it ring.

What?

“Look I’m really sorry, baby.  It’s just I was on the road everyday, and I was tired.”

Aaron heard a sigh on the other end, which he knew was an inroad.  He continued quickly so as not to miss this sudden diplomatic opportunity.

“You know how it is with my dad and Tracy.  I was up early every day and had to listen to her all the time.  On and on and on. . . ”

He thinned out plaintively and waited.

“Well, there’s no way I could put up with that.  What about the stupid antiques?”

“Are you kidding me?  You know how she is.  This time it was all about different lampshades she found in every single town in every single goddamn county.”

“Ooh, no thank you.”

“I know, right?  It was really bad.  I miss you.  How’s the baby?”

“He’s sooo cute!”  Her voice trailed off as his son made happy noises in the distance.  “Oh yes you are!  Oh yes you are!  Such a cutieee . . . .”

Aaron almost jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  It was Reginald, the deli guy.

“Oh hey man, didn’t mean to surprise you.  I was jus gonna say if you was fixin to go down to the Quartah sometime.  Well I could show ya where dem beignets at.”

He held the phone out a little bit and offered his hand.

“Maybe after I get settled in.  My name’s Aaron.”

The man took it happily and grinned.

“An my name ain’t Reginald.  Oh hell nah.  Just Reggie, a’aight?”

“Sounds like a plan, Reggie.  Thanks.”

“I know you on a call now.  Look, man I’ll see you round.”

Reggie started walking down the sidewalk, and Aaron smiled.  Then the phone squawked at him, and his smile faded.

“What was that?”

“What, your ass can’t hear me fucking talk?”

Back to the drawing board.

“No, it’s not that.  I just couldn’t hear for a second.”

Please deposit seventy-five cents for the next. . . three. . . minutes.

All he could hear was “fuck that” as he began to search his pockets again.

He found a quarter and put it in.

“– and I really don’t give a shit.  Like I said, we don’t have to fucking go there.  And if –”

Please deposit fifty cents.

“Hey, I couldn’t hear.  Just wait a minute!”

Three minutes.

He pushed down several more coins.

“Hello?  Hello?”

Silence.

“Look, I’m sorry.  There’s a lot of traffic going by.  It’s hard to hear.”

Silence.

“Baby?  Are you there?”

He heard a heavy sigh.

“Why don’t you go talk to your boyfriend instead?”

“What?”

“You think I’m stupid, Aaron? Who the fuck is Reggie?”

“What? I just bought a sandwich at his store.  He’s the guy that sold me a sandwich, ok?”

“Fuck you.”

Click.

Aaron held up the receiver and stared at it in disbelief.  She was so irrational, there was no dealing with it.  Still, he had to.  He had resolved that he would stand by his son, no matter the price.  So there were going to be about a million setbacks.  So what?

He noticed that on the ground by his feet, the package was covered with ants.  He kicked at it, but the damage had already been done.  He picked it up by two half-open ends and shook it with a quick, frightened violence.  A fair amount of the contents flung to the wind, but he kept a thumb on some of it.  One or two of the cheeses, some dampened bread and a fat piece of sausage survived the storm, and Aaron brushed off the tiny invaders until he had made a complete mess.

In the end, he was too creeped out by the insects to enjoy his pyrrhic victory.  He threw the whole thing down in disgust.  He wiped his greasy, sodden hands over his damp shirt, trying to shake away any fugitive bugs along with the now endemic wetness.

Coin.  Coin.  Coin.

She finally picked up.

“What, you didn’t hear me, Aaron?  I said, ‘Fuck.  You.’”

Click.

J. Scott Hardin is Senior Editor at The Houston Literary Review and a regular contributor with Ragazine. His work has appeared at Journal of Truth and Consequence, Danse Macabre, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Final Draft and elsewhere. Readers are invited to read more at www.jscotthardin.com.

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