This life splits you apart like a fortune cookie. Bear with me while I have this Proustian moment the year I was twelve and live on Martha Avenue with a fire down the street. Fire trucks and fire men.
The house was once a small lending library. In one corner stands a card catalogue that people shuffled through to seek books for school assignments about russet potatoes or the structure of a possum trot house. Now everyone carries a library in their smartphone. You google to find Luther Burbank developed that russet potato. You examine the breezeway of a possum trot house in Duplin. Yet I still liked to flip through that card catalogue to look at book titles, the authors’ names, year of publication, number of pages, the reference number in the Library of Congress, and the library call number. For some reason I swiped the card to The Far Away Lurs by Harry Behn, published 1963. I still got it. Library of Congress number PZ7.B38823 Far 1981. The romance of two young people from warring tribes in the early Bronze Age.
My best friend is a year older. Or he might be my age. His answer changed sometimes. He always spelled music as musique. It’s a statement, he says.
We eat at his home a lot. His mom works at Dee’s Diner. She asks if I’m hungry. I ask what’s on the menu. My friend shouts at me. He is sensitive about his mom’s work at the diner. Don’t ask your best friend’s mother what’s on the menu, he says. She’s not a waitress, he says, as she stands there waiting on us. We’re not at the diner, he says. Manners, manners, he says. What’s on the menu is merely theory and wish. What she sets on the table is fact.
One fact: a bottle of Louisiana Tabasco Hot sits on the table to pour on Russet potatoes, whether baked or mashed. The other fact: there is always baked or mashed Russet potatoes with every meal, with cold leftovers for breakfast. One of the drawers is crammed full of uneaten fortune cookies. No one likes them. I split one apart to read my fortune but my friend knocked it out of my hand.
Don’t take anyone else’s bullshit, he says. Make up your own goddam bullshit.
I dance in the living room. I look up at the broken ceiling fan. My legs kick in a yeet dance and my arms spread, circle large sporadic hoops. My best friend shakes his head, frowns as his mother laughs.
When the cops close the street in front of her house one sultry August day, I get a text from my best friend. I don’t look at it till the game finishes. I sit in a corner of the library where there are still books. Hence, no one is here. We play gross-out the day before. I thought I had him with a fart. But he sticks a finger down his throat and vomits. He is the king.
We love absurdist humor. We never use the word absurdist. We walk into shoes stores and question salesmen where the chainsaws are until the manager screams, orders us out. Then we walk into meat market and ask if Chihuahuas or dachshunds make better sausage—we say our parents sent us to ask.
Two dozen firemen from the Briar Oaks Volunteer Fire Department block my way when I finally read the text. I think it absurd. I snicker. Then I see the water shoot to the smoke where I knew my best friend lives. Black snowflakes of soot drift thick. Cops and deputies group up, talking low.
I crawl through our secret army game way to the house. I peek from behind the privet hedge by the porch. There lay two zippered bags, one about my size, and one larger. That’s my best friend in that bag. In the other, his mother. There is Tabasco hot sauce on the table. A Russet potato half peeled sits on the counter. I see the door close on the van where they slid the bags.
My best friend’s mother’s name is Carla but people call her Carly. I couldn’t have told you if you’d ask, but I remember her name now. I never asked about my friend’s father. I know the hat that hung on the peg by the door is his father’s hat. It always hangs there. I grabbed it once. I pop it on my head, dust clouds exploded. My friend backhands me, grabs the hat and carefully hangs it back on the hook.
The van drives away. Yellow police tape stretches across the door. There are no police and no firemen and no fire trucks. When did they leave? I stand on the porch. The tape flutters. I am untethered. Too light, too small. The postman, Mr. Breggs, walks up with his satchel from the house next door and slides mail through the door slot. He walks to the next house without seeing the yellow police tape. Then I recognize something through the window. The card catalogue. It has been burned and broken. I see scorched and burned remnants of book title and author cards. The Crayon Miscellany. Washington Irving.
I vomit into the privet hedge. I heave till nothing comes anymore yet I still heave and heave and heave. Bish, bash, bosh, bush, besh.
Afterward, I sit against the door. The dusty hat hangs only a few inches away on the other side. The Tabasco bottle still sits dead center on what my mother would call a Pembroke table. There’s a library book on local architecture sitting on a half-finished book report. My mother is supposed to help. She’s not gonna like that smoke smell.
I hear my best friend went away. At least that’s what some idiot at school says. Others pretend they never heard of him. One teacher shakes me, then slaps me when I ask. The other teachers hustle her away.
So I look for his mom. Her name is Carla, just like my mom. My dad calls her Carly. You know, I feel so lonesome for my best friend that I guess I just want to ask her about him. I’m don’t feel like nothing no more except wishing he hadn’t done whatever he done to get sent away. I don’t want seem to want nothing no more. I check at Dee’s Diner to see if Carly was there but it was closed. So if you see her let her know I’m waiting. I’m sitting on the porch watching the light hit the dirty windows. I’m gonna stay till Carly comes back. I’m hungry. I know where the extra key is hidden. It’s in the crack of the eaves by the old wasp nest. I may eat from that drawer of food packets. Hell, I might even eat a stale fortune cookie. I won’t read the fortune. It’s someone else’s bullshit. I make my own goddam bullshit fortune.
J. Alan Nelson, a writer and actor, has work published or forthcoming in journals including Conjunctions, New York Quarterly, B O D Y, Stand, Acumen, Pampelmousse, Main Street Rag, Texas Observer, Arc, California Quarterly, Connecticut River Review, Adirondack Review, Red Cedar Review, Wisconsin Review, South Carolina Review, Kairos, Ligeia, Strange Horizons, Illuminations, Review Americana, Whale Road Review and North Dakota Quarterly. He has received nominations for Best of Net poetry and Best Microfiction. He also played the lead in the viral video “Does This Cake Make Me Look Gay?” and the verbose “Silent Al” in the Emmy-winning SXSWestworld.”