Joshua Hebburn

And Birthdays

Their heads already full of some gor­geous gray sub­stance, they crouch and smoke cig­a­rettes, suck from a huge met­al ther­mos, and pass a pink glass pipe. The world is stained bright by anoth­er sun­rise. It’s Friday — It’s Friday every­day at sev­en a.m. in the alley­way. It isn’t an alley­way where they crouch, exact­ly, but a between space; all the yards of two neigh­bor­ing cul-de-sacs — two fin­gers of the stretch­ing sub­ur­ban glove — feed­ing into its amor­phous eight thou­san­dish square feet in some way: there’s left­over con­crete bags from a fin­ished porch, three wood gates, the husk of a christ­mas tree, one shed’s back door, rusty beer cans and a zoo of oth­er small trash.

They don’t know who I am, that I watch — that I am, prob­a­bly, she thought, sit­ting  qui­et­ly and sip­ping at scald­ing pep­per­mint tea. She was inter­change­ably read­ing the comics sec­tion of the news­pa­per and a book about marathon run­ning for her report. Through her kitchen win­dow, through her chain link, and a slit in the heavy gray wil­low, she had the only van­tage, she guessed, on their secret spot in the alley. She kept the brighter kitchen light off and she watched every morn­ing. It was strange, know­ing  they smoked weed out there. She thought it was weed.  She sipped her tea and read Marmaduke and looked. She read a half-para­graph and sipped her tea and looked. She looked at the clock, near­ly sev­en forty.  She imag­ined them, one by one,  Mr. Thomas, Mr. Jin, etc — she didn’t know them all. They were fat and thin­ner, pants and jack­ets the col­or of a late night or unpol­ished sil­ver. She felt a slight pain at the thought that they would all soon be slip­ping through the wil­low to go to their works

~

She emerged from the scald­ing show­er into the blown-out white  of the bathroom’s flo­res­cent light. A small frost­ed win­dow was open, had been open, and the mir­ror was unsteamed. She care­ful­ly dried her body with a soft tow­el. She brushed her teeth and flossed with a minty wire. She applied stick anti-per­spi­rant slash deodor­ant and a mois­tur­iz­ing face cream and a low SPF sun­screen. Passively, she inspect­ed her body. She did this auto­mat­i­cal­ly.  She thought, when she had thought about it direct­ly, that there was noth­ing abnor­mal about her body, there was no major — even less­er — defor­mi­ty. Her doc­tor, her boyfriend had nev­er men­tioned or lin­gered upon any­thing. But she nev­er felt that her body was right.  Once she had been con­vinced it was in the shape, the size of her breasts, or once it was in her brown­ish nip­ples, the ame­bic are­o­las, or once it was the ratio of her facial fea­tures, or once that bulge of stom­ach, once the black den­si­ty of her pubic hair. She’d thought the wrong­ness was at, at one time or anoth­er, near­ly every­where. She had giv­en up, con­scious­ly, on plac­ing it.

She wrapped her­self in her tow­el. She brushed her hair and looked at her­self in the mir­ror. She went to her room and put on panties and pur­ple sweat­pants and an over­sized, logoed white t-shirt. She gath­ered the things she need­ed to do the cal­cu­lus her teacher would be by tomor­row to col­lect. She felt a pang of anx­i­ety, if she failed – I’m ahead in oth­er things, she remind­ed her­self as she select­ed music on her iPod. She put the white dots, the lone­ly pol­ka dots, of her ear­phones in her ears — Oingo Boingo’s “Stay” —  and she spread her stuff mess­i­ly across her blonde desk. She checked her assign­ment and opened her book to the right page. She laid out a blank piece of paper. She sharp­ened a pen­cil in her small man­u­al sharp­en­er. The pen­cil was a yel­low Ticonderoga num­ber 2. She copied the first prob­lem neat­ly. She rechecked the assign­ment. She leaned back into her chair. Tea first, she thought. Peppermint. She stuffed her iPod in her pock­et and went out and down the stairs. She changed her mind, Earl Gray. And rum. She went into the kitchen and clicked on the elec­tric ket­tle. She sat. The Oingo Boingo end­ed, she reached in her pock­et restart­ed it. She got up and walked up the stairs and stood on the land­ing. She paused and stared out the land­ing win­dow at her neighbor’s flour­ish­ing lawn. In a short brick rec­tan­gle by their front win­dow, there was an equal­ly pros­per­ous veg­etable gar­den.  She could see the toma­toes, pen­du­lous and bright­ly red. There was some kind of rough, leafy green, almost like ripped paper. The shades were drawn, an off-white infest­ed with a hun­dred iden­ti­cal red flow­ers. She felt like she was star­ing into a cun­ning  mod­el inside a glass box. An aquar­i­um toy. Would a neigh­bor swim by? Or, more accu­rate­ly, fly? I would like that, she decid­ed. She went back down and into the kitchen. She imag­ined, with a sick glee, her neigh­bor, pudgy Mrs. Thomas, wear­ing snorkel gear and one-piece, con­tent­ed­ly breast-stroking through the sky, some pedes­tri­ans strolling below her obliv­i­ous, a cat star­ing up from a dri­ve­way, then look­ing away. I want to be that cat, the uncar­ing cat, she decid­ed.

The elec­tric ket­tle whis­tled its one shrill note.  She poured the hot water into the cup. “Only a Lad” played. She start­ed to dance through the kitchen as she wait­ed for her tea. She threw her arms in the air and threw around her hair and swung her hips. I don’t give a fuck she thought. She closed her eyes. She sung Oo-oo-oo and Only A Lad and sung the sound a-cap­pel­la. The song fin­ished, anoth­er start­ed. She lift­ed the teabag  out of the tea and tossed it in the sink. She poured an inch out of the tea. She opened a cab­i­net and took from the cab­i­net many dark bot­tles an amber bot­tle of rum. She replaced the inch with rum. She stamped her feet and mixed her tea with a spoon. She took a long drink of the scald­ing rum  and tea and start­ed to sing.

Out of breath, drunk­er, she was star­ing up into the liv­ing room sky­light, the clouds were mov­ing to the beat­ing of drums. Frozen tableaux after frozen tableaux, like a liv­ing mag­a­zine, filled the win­dow. Mrs. Thomas snor­kel­ing in the sky. A dark eyed fawn in a burn­ing for­est. Leathers and chains and inflamed lips gasp­ing ohs. White glow­ing, an X-ray of a lung. The Americans and the Japanese eat­ing  Mickey D’s in yel­low paper and fire­work bits of sashi­mi. A man smok­ing a cig­a­rette against a brick wall. The skull encrust­ed Broadway with dia­monds. A cou­ple kiss­ing beside a blue breath­ing sea. A pink bal­loon. A des­ic­cat­ed child being low­ered into the dirt. A porno artist at a glow­ing screen draw­ing a woman being pen­e­trat­ed by bright green ten­ta­cles. Someone writhing, bloody stom­ached, on a con­crete floor. The opera’s red pomp and gold grand­ness and glit­ter­ing orna­ment. The choco­late cook­ie of a human eye milky with cataracts. She flew men­tal­ly through the the entire glassy cat­a­log of the imag­ined, the cat­a­log of fright­ful woes, of buoy­ant plea­sure, of delight­ful strange­ness. The weight between them, at the end of her sur­vey, seemed equals.

~

Hello?” he said.

She clutched the tele­phone to her ear. She was  uncom­fort­ably warm; she had drunk anoth­er inch or two of rum. Am I drunk, she thought.

Hi,” she said, “is, uh, this, Fred Thomas?”

This is he,” he said. I am drunk, she thought.

The black address book, rid­dled with raggedy loose paper, was spread open on the floor. She was spread, bel­ly down, on the floor.

It’s my birth­day,” She said. There was a short silence, “Can I talk to you maybe ten min­utes?”

Who is this?” He asked.  I’m ner­vous she thought.

I live down the street from you. I’m eigh­teen,” she said as she brushed hair behind her ear. She repeat­ed, “Can I talk to you for ten min­utes?” I’m so so ner­vous she thought.

I’m not sure I fol­low you,” He said, sound­ing dis­tressed, “but alright.”

I know what you do inside the wil­low,” She said, and she sud­den­ly felt like her lungs and stom­ach were full of slushy ice, “And I want us to under­stand each oth­er.”

There was a longer silence.

What do you want.” His voice was like an ice-rink after clos­ing time, all the lights turned off, the ice wrin­kled deep by skater’s sharp, sil­ver blades.

I’m not wear­ing any panties, ” she said. Oh god, she thought. Silence again. Oh, fuck, she thought. She forced her­self to gulp. She was swal­low­ing ice.

~

Joshua Hebburn is a stu­dent liv­ing in Los Angeles, and “And Birthdays” is his first pub­lished work.