J. Alan Nelson ~ Hat on a peg

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. Dont ask your best friends moth­er whats on the menu, he says. Shes 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 friends moth­ers name is Carla but peo­ple call her Carly. I couldnt have told you if youd ask, but I remem­ber her name now. I nev­er asked about my friends father. I know the hat that hung on the peg by the door is his fathers 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.”