Literary Yard

Search for meaning


By: Charles Rose

Broken Sticks

I don’t want to be at this party. Let’s get that clear from the start. Okay?

Too many bad things can happen. And usually do. Laughter turns to blood in no time. I know. I’ve seen it happen on both sides of me. And all it would take is one knife or one gun.

And what’s the best that could happen here or at any party? Some girl comes up to me and asks for my number or maybe just talks to me for a while and then somehow I work up the courage to ask for her number. Then what? Eventually it will end.

Everything always does.

But even before that, I have no idea what the hell I’d even say to her. There are thousands of words in the English language and I have no idea which ones I’m supposed to use. Worse yet, who knows which words she’ll choose to throw at me?

Too many possibilities.

But she’ll probably ask me what I like to do, and right there I’m sunk.

What the hell do I like to do?

Well, I do like to read and I like to watch Columbo and Monk re-runs on TV. I love it, but I’ve yet to find anyone under the age of 50 who agrees. I find most people think I’m kidding. I’m not. I used to like to watch sports – before it all happened – but now they just stress me out.

As a rule, I try to avoid these parties as much as possible. I know, 21 and no responsibilities, I should be living it up, right? I wouldn’t even be here if this wasn’t my cousin’s party. He just graduated college and will be moving to Austin in 8 days for some good job working for some awesome company. I didn’t get through my first year of college. When I no longer saw the value of reading any of the crap the professors jammed down our throats or writing the bullshit they demanded from my hand, my GPA dropped below a 1.0 and soon my time was up.

I walk across the front lawn and around to the back where somewhere close to 30 people are sitting and standing around. There’s a picnic table next to the backdoor buried in coolers. There are mostly women to my left and mostly men to my right. Or should I say girls to my left and boys to my right? They’re still just a little too young to completely mix before the alcohol blurs away the dividing line. It’s not completely segregated like a middle school dance, but it’s not your mom and dad’s cocktail party either. (Do mom and dad’s still have cocktail parties?)

“Here you go,” Jimmy says handing me a beer.

It’s cold and sweaty and I almost drop it. Jimmy laughs.

“Thank you,” I say.

“You’re going to have some fun tonight,” he tells me. He’s smiling wide. “I put in a good word about you to Alison.”

I don’t know what the hell that means.

“Oh really,” I say. I’m trying to sound excited, but in a cool way. But I’m afraid I just sound apathetic, or worse yet, maybe even annoyed. “I mean I – I mean…” and my voice trails off.

Jimmy slaps his hand down on my shoulder and leaves it there. He squeezes hard enough to give me the hint of pain. He puts his bottle to his lips and tips the bottom toward the sky. I wait patiently and fight to keep my body still as the skin beneath his hand tries to slither down my back.

But I like Jimmy. We grew-up like brothers. After his parents split when he was 5 or 6, his mom moved into the little apartment above my parents’ garage. They ate dinner with us every night, and did pretty much everything with us: You know like go to the movies with us, and stuff like that. We were a big happy family: Me, my parents, my sister Emily, Jimmy, and his mom Melanie. But they moved away to the other side of town just after Jimmy and I started high school. That was about a year before my dad and Emily were ripped away.

But now’s not the time to think about that.

“You gonna be okay?” Jimmy asks me.

“Yeah,” I say. I give one giant nod just to drive home that I really mean it.

Jimmy walks away and I’m left looking at the people sitting around the free picnic table. I don’t want to be rude so I look away and study the top of the elm tree at the edge of the backyard. I don’t see her coming over to me, so I don’t have time to walk away.

“You’re Adam, right?”

“Adam Lane,” I say.


She is wearing a sundress that’s blue and stops midway down her tanned thighs. She has light brown hair that’s gathered up in a ball behind her head. “My name is Adam Lane,” I say. “Not Adam Wright.”

She shakes her head and smiles. She has a gap between her teeth and a scar snaking down the right side of her face. “I didn’t mean that.”

“What?” I ask.

“I didn’t mean,” she frowns. Shakes her head. Then sips her beer and holds the tip of the bottle against her chin. “Never mind,” she says. She stares at me. “I’m Alison.”

And here it comes. She’s going to ask me to talk about myself. She’s going to want to know what I like to do. And what the hell will I say? That I used to like to watch hockey and then one day I realized that there is a possibility that all those hockey sticks could break and then they’d have to stop the game. And then what? Wait until they got more sticks? Or postpone the entire game? I know, the odds of them breaking all those sticks in one single game are very slim, but it isn’t impossible. It could happen. And I know it’s never happened. But that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. In fact, it might just mean that it’s due.

“I don’t watch hockey,” I tell her.

She studies me closely. I stand-up tall and push out my chest, trying to make myself thick so she can’t see through me. “Your cousin told me you were different,” she says. She looks to me for a response. I look to the ground.

I really like the gap between her teeth. I think of waking up beside her and seeing her smile at me as the sun rises beyond the window behind her. I think of her sliding her tongue past those teeth and into my ear. I can feel it pressing against my ear lobe, moist and soft. And I think of slipping my own tongue past those teeth and into her mouth. But, of course, that would only lead to other things. Things that are too heavy to bear.

There are only extremes with sex: It’s either really good or really bad. And with it, only comes life or death. I mean that quite literally, but figuratively too. There is no in between. There is no grey. Well, then again, come to think about it, perhaps there is a grey that exists. And maybe it is that grey that’s been the ruin of many a marriage. And maybe even the end of many of lives.

Alison is still looking at me. Waiting. But I don’t remember what we were talking about. Were we talking at all? She looks toward the large Elm tree at the edge of the backyard. I look at her sandals and her painted toes. They’re pink.

“Well,” she finally says, “it was nice meeting you Adam Wright.”

“You too,” I say. And she’s walking away before I realize that she’d just made a joke.

I turn around to see what’s behind me. I sip my beer. It’s already getting warm. It tastes like the scent of skunks mixed with apples. The taste of a good, fresh beer has never been a pleasant to me. This is neither, and I hate it.

Before I have time to react or think, she’s back, beside me this time.

“Oh God Adam Wright, I’m really sorry but you have to be my boyfriend right now.”

I turn around and Alison takes my free hand in hers. There is warmth and sweat but I don’t know if it’s hers of mine.

“Your boyfriend?” I ask.

“Yes, sorry. Sorry but here he comes,” she whispers low and fast. “Just play along.” I can barely hear her. “I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” I ask.

“My ex-boyfriend.”

This doesn’t compute right away. I’m her boyfriend for her ex-boyfriend? But now he is in front of us.

“Who’s your friend?” he asks Alison.

“My boyfriend,” she says. It’s not the words as much as the shit-eating I-win-you-lose-so-fuck-you expression on her face that concerns me.

I look at him and I see the hatred in his eyes. (I’d describe it as venom but I’m really trying not to use words like that anymore. I think I’m too young and it’s just not cool.) Is that venom (crap) for me or for her or for both of us? I look at Alison and I see the look of satisfaction on her face. But it doesn’t look true. It’s only on the surface like gold plated metal. It’s hiding something ugly, something cold and hard.

I’m nervously fingering the scar on my right ear lobe. It’s a deep line that runs vertically from the opening of my ear all that way to the tip of my lobe. Someone who isn’t from around here might think I had an earring ripped out. But anyone from here, or even near here, knows the truth. I see the ex-boyfriend staring at me – eyes flicking from my face, to my piddling fingers, to my scar.

“I’m A-Adam,” I say because I don’t like the way he looks at me and I don’t like the silence surrounding that look.

“You have a last name A-Adam?” He begins playing with his own ear lobe. I keep playing with mine.

And in rush the memories. (In times like these I don’t push them away.) Alison and this guy are talking, saying words that I don’t hear. He is frowning. She is smiling. There is hell in her eyes and fire in his. But I’m seeing the blood… everywhere. And I smell it too. Blood mixed with the stench of death, and a little burned skin too. And I’m back there in that memory holding my hand tight against my neck while the blood – sticky and warm – spills between my fingers and runs down my arm.

But this guy – Alison’s ex-boyfriend – has something white and gooey on his bottom lip. And now it’s stretching from his bottom lip to his top lip – a sickening thread of mucus. Oh God. (Are you telling me that she kissed those lips?) There it is stretching again. It’s bending toward me with every few words, and then it breaks and retreats back into itself on his lower lip again, and then a few words later, it stretches between again, and repeats its dance. Eventually, he will speak the right word (actually the wrong word) and that ball of germs is going to fly at me.

Alison squeezes my hand tighter and I realize that he’s talking to me. I pull my eyes up away from his bottom lip and try to zero in on his words.

“Just gonna stand there looking stupid, huh?”

I’ve never actually been punched in my life, but I’m pretty sure that’s about to change. I’ve always known it would happen. In fact, it could happen at any given moment. Any person passing on the street or in the malls, or even in your own home, could suddenly coldcock you. It’s a constant possibility – one that I sometimes worry about. But now that possibility has turned into a probability. I’m pretty sure.

So, I should let go of Alison’s hand and I should walk away.

How dare she do this to me? Who the hell is she to me anyway? Who am I to her?

Well, I’m the guy she chose to put in the middle of her and the big ex-boyfriend. And that means something. It means I’m cute enough and cool enough and good enough. But for what? Well, to be put in the middle. And that means something, right?

And oh man that ball of mucus is loosening. My free hand moves from my ear lobe to my bottom lip. I give a couple taps, trying to let him know it’s there. He doesn’t understand. He’s yelling now and I know I’m about to get hit. With the mucus, I mean, right in the face. Oh God, please God, don’t let it be in the mouth.

And it happens fast. I see his arm raise and shoot forward. There is a flash of light as the setting sun reflects off the face of his wristwatch for the briefest of seconds. And then I feel the pain shooting from my chin and back into the depths of my ears. I’m down on my ass and Alison follows on top of me. Our hands are holding fast to one another and I can’t help but pull her down with me. I’m on my back and she’s on top of me, her breasts pushing against my face -my nose perfectly fitting into her bare cleavage. Her breasts smell like strawberries. And I think with all things considered, this is working out pretty well. She’s yelling and scrambling and then she’s back on her feet. And I feel a sharp elbow dig into my ribs as Alison falls beside me. She bounces back up and now I’m on my feet too. But I don’t want to be. I wish I was off my feet, flying away, away from here.

We were having fun that day. We were minding our own business. Dad was laughing and Emily was pointing at the little boy with a beagle across the street and she was laughing too. I was between them watching that little boy share his ice cream cone with his dog. And I was laughing with them.

I was between them. I swear I was. I know it like I know the sky is up above and the ground is down below. I was between them.
I’m back on the ground, curled into an imperfect ball, with my hands jammed into my crotch before I even realize that this prick kneed me in the groin. There are feet running around me and a couple even jump over me. I take a foot to the head but that’s okay, all the pain that I’m capable of feeling is centered in my groin and lower stomach at the moment. I’m pretty sure I could get my nose sliced off and I wouldn’t even feel it.

There is a lot of yelling and pushing and grabbing and through my tears I can see several guys hauling Alison’s ex-boyfriend away. There are a couple girls walking after them pointing their fingers and screaming obscenities. One of them slaps the ex in the back of the head just before they all round the corner of the house and disappear toward the street.

My cousin is helping me to my feet and trying to hand me a beer. I don’t want it. And I don’t want to be here. I really can’t be here so I retreat away to that day as I start to stumble for my car.

We didn’t even hear the gunshot. All I knew was the 3 of us were standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross, watching that little boy and his dog, and then I was on my back, holding my neck. My skin burned and my first thought was that someone threw a burning match on me. My next thought was that I had been stabbed. Someone walked behind us and jammed a blade into the side of my neck.
The wound was alive – it breathed in and out. And with every breath came a crescendo of pain. The sunlight slashed at my eyes as the pain coursed throughout my body, and a train rumbled through my ears.

My body convulsed as it tried to expel some of the pain out through my feet, and I kicked something that was at first soft and then hard. So, I instinctively stopped kicking. I rolled away from the sunlight and opened my eyes. I wiped my face with my hand and held that hand before my eyes. It was all bloodied with pink and purple chunks.

I knew I was about to die.

I hate thinking about this. Especially this part. But sometimes, when things get particularly rough, I find comfort in throwing my mind back to those moments. It’s a reminder that this is completely okay because that absolutely was not. It’s a reminder that every hockey stick in the arena can break, but the game of hockey would go on. And players would still get hit in the face with the puck, and they’d still suffer broken bones and sprained knees, and some will even be forced to retire young. Some might even die. But it’ll be okay, better even. Because none of those players will ask, “Why me?” None of them will be thrown into a depression, feeling like they got the short end of the stick. (Sorry about the pun.) They’ll all think of that time all the sticks broke and the game was cancelled. And those players will know that every second they played, was a lucky one. And they will be okay with it.

The bullet killed both my sister and my father instantly. So when I kicked my dad, he didn’t even feel it. But follow me closely, because this is the crazy part.

The bullet was from a drive-by shooting. The guy who did it was never caught, at least not by the police. He was firing at a guy standing a little down the street from us. Honestly, I don’t know if that guy died or not. I know he was hit with a couple bullets. Anyway, one single bullet passed through my father’s head and sliced through the side of my neck and entered into my sister’s shoulder (breaking her right collarbone) and lodging in her heart.

Did you get that? I was standing right between them and somehow the bullet missed me (except for a tiny wound) and killed both of them. And I was between them. One in a million was how one investigator put it. The Medical Examiner said the bullet was redirected by my father’s skull. That’s how and why it happened. But I know better.

Yeah, sure I understand the science behind it and I know the science has to fit what happened. After all, science has to be molded into explanations and it always obliges. But I’m alive while they are gone. And that’s just because with all of life’s spinning plates, one wobbled for just a second, and that threw extra luck onto me while pulling it away from them.

I open my car door and start to climb in. “Adam?” a voice calls.

I pull myself back out of the car and try to manage a smile as Alison approaches me.

“I’m so sorry about that,” she says. She leans in and kisses me on the cheek. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“It’s okay,” I say. My voice is husky and rougher than I thought it’d sound. “It could’ve been worse.”

Alison leans back and looks me in the eyes. She smiles. God I love that space in her teeth. “Could’ve been worse?” she chuckles.
And that’s what she doesn’t understand, and probably never will. And it’s the blessing and the curse that I’ve been saddled with: The knowledge that things could always be worse.

“I’m fine. Just not sure how you could ever be with such an asshole.”

She looks down and sweeps her foot across the top of the blades of grass. “Well, sorry,” she says dropping her voice on the last syllable. It’s an obvious sign that she’s finished with the conversation, finished with me.

I turn back to the car and put one foot inside. “He wasn’t always an asshole,” she says. I turn and look back at her. “Well,” she continues with a smile, “I guess he probably always was, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know how he was or how he’d turn out.” Her smile transforms into a frown so fast that I didn’t even see it happen. And I’m starring right into her face – really paying attention. “He seemed like a nice guy and I trusted him. And I was wrong. But hey,” she extends her arms out parallel to the ground so that her shadow looks like an airplane taking flight. That smile comes back just as fast as it went. “At least I tried, right?”

Tried? I nod like I understand, but I don’t. But there is something there. Something to what she just said. But it’s something I can’t quite put my finger on. Not right now. Not right away.

“Yes, you tried,” I say because she’s looking at me waiting for a response and no other words come to mind. “Don’t worry about it.”
But now I’m worried about it. Worried about what just happened and worried about what she just said.

“Well, take care,” she says to me. “Hopefully I’ll see you around.”

She turns and begins walking toward the backyard. The music has started up again and I can hear laughter. I watch the sway of her hips. “Hey, Alison,”

She doesn’t hear me at first so I say her name a little louder and this time she turns around. She’s a little too far away for me to be able to see through the darkness. I can’t tell if she’s smiling or frowning.

“Yeah?” she says as she walks back toward me.

“Can I take you to dinner?” I ask. “Maybe tomorrow?”

I know we could die in a car accident on the way there. I know she could choke on her salad or I could slip and fall on the tile in the restaurant bathroom. I know I could. But couldn’t I also have fun? Couldn’t she?

She walks a few paces closer to me and now I can see it’s definitely a smile on her face.

And I know there are millions of asteroids floating out there in space that could hit the Earth at any time, and there are billions of bullets in this country that could easily kill millions of people. I also know that there are literally millions of other predators that can kill us at any given second, but for this one second, in this one moment of time, none of that matters quite as much. Neither does science nor odds nor luck.

Because even though there are more than 170,000 words in the English language that Alison could choose, I know she is about to speak just one.


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