Back to Issue Twenty-Four.

go to oso

BY DUSTIN M. HOFFMAN

 

           From the back seat, I’m forced to study the sweat-stained white collar ringing Tack’s neck. One fist grips the steering wheel, the other mashing his eye socket. This is probably the first time he’s been up before eight o’clock since he quit school. I worry Hector will be the same when he stops going, will devolve from some lovely lost winged thing into an oozing larva, bulging gut, numb brain. Tack and Hector will spend their lives under bedsheets, hands sliding to fondle their own balls for the tenth time at noon in the morning. Tack longs for a partner in his life of lethargy.

           We’re on our way to Oso’s apartment an hour south in Lansing. Oso: Tack’s dealer, Tack’s idol, the epitome of swagger and honor and manliness. Tack rants at Hector who’s trapped in the shotgun seat of the Corsica. “Oso says we’re ripe for expansion. Wants to take a chance on me. Gonna front us a pound of his greenest trees.” Tack yanks Hector’s ponytail. “Oso believes in me, man. Believes in what I can do to our town.” Tack sucks his lower lip, makes a popping sound. “Oso’s got all the connects, the best shit in the state, bangs the hottest Latinos and black girls in Lansing. Says white girls give his cock a rash like a barber pole. I heard my man has three testicles. Mucho machismo, man.”

           “Why am I here, then? Might make your boyfriend’s giant scrotum break out in hives,” I say.

           Hector laughs, stares straight ahead at the salt-marbled highway.

           “Because, little sis,” Tack says, “I said you could come. I let you. And maybe a bit of eye candy can’t hurt. Even if it’s all pale and pasty. Shake your ass a little. Every bit helps. Can you be a little bit worth something today?”

           Tack has never called me “sis,” has never alluded to me being pretty. He’s sucking up only because Hector wants me here and Tack has to pretend it’s his strategy.

           “Too bad about those tiny tits though,” Tack says and turns around in his seat, pinching at my nipples. Hector takes the wheel automatically. We stay steady in his hands, headed south on brined concrete, doing eighty-seven in a seventy. Tack finds my left nipple, twists. It stings like fire. I dig my nails into his forearm, but he keeps at it. I grab his seatbelt, kick into his seat and pull with all I have. The belt nooses around his throat, and he chokes, cusses, shoves me back into my seat. He recovers the wheel, his rightful place as our shit-for-brains leader, and Hector reclines into the passenger seat. Hector flips down his visor, looks at me in the cracked mirror. I can only see his eyes, those brown slits divided by a zigzagging fissure in the glass. I wonder what I look like in there, where that crack splits me. Out the window, barren cornfields of frozen dirt ripple past.

           Tack mutters about what a stupid bitch I am. So much for sucking up. Kindness from Tack is erratic and barbed. Tack’s kindness is a bowling ball chucked off an overpass bridge, smashing through random windshields to crack skulls at high speeds.

           Hector says, “You need to burn one and chill out.” When Tack doesn’t react and keeps fuming behind the wheel, Hector flicks a lighter and holds the flame under Tack’s earlobe.

           “OK, Jesus. Fuck, man.” Tack snatches the lighter from him. He reaches under the steering column and cracks the circuit box, where he stashes his joints. He lights one and passes it to me.

           This is Tack’s apology, as close as it gets. But I’ll never say thank you to Tack, no matter how well his drugs help me forget I’m stuck in small-town purgatory.

           US-27 bridges up over Ithaca. We fly right past these tiny hick towns. The smaller they are the shorter their blur. Tack floors it around the curve sprouting yellow caution arrows, and I slide against the Corsica’s flimsy door. My ear presses against glass. The road and the world under it hum. We pass the joint: Hector’s fingers to my lips to Tack’s over-the-shoulder grip. It’s silent as my parents praying before dinner. They claim they’re praying, expect me and my sister to, but I always just sit there and wonder what mom’s really thinking: How did she fuck up so bad to wind up a nesting doll—frozen in this Great-Lake-locked state, stranded in this tiny town, locked in this barely-a-home cage with her disappointing daughters, trapped in the suffocating wrappings of her own skin and skull. And now the shells are cracking, her house slipping through her fingers as inevitably as I pass this joint.

           We hit the fifty-five slow-down stretch, where dirt roads intersect the freeway. Could be seventy miles per hour if Michigan didn’t have such a boner for their dying farmers. Really, this is only a final politeness, like fluffing a corpse’s casket pillow. The farmers get to keep their dirt roads across the freeway, and every other sorry sucker in central Michigan must slow down to watch their rusted-out John Deeres parade their death crawl.

           Not us, though. Not Tack. Tack speeds up, pushes past ninety. Tack doesn’t yield for farmers, doesn’t care about dying vocations or hidden drives. We’re not even late, but if a sign says slow down, then Tack needs faster. He won’t be like this on the way back, when we’re stowing a pound of pot under the spare tire.

           We zip past a state trooper staked out in the median. Tack squints in his rearview, and I don’t have to turn around to know the cruiser’s pulling onto the freeway.

           “What’re you holding?” Hector asks.

           “You’re smoking it,” Tack says.

           “What about this?” Hector reaches into the passenger seat’s torn upholstery and pulls out a plastic breath mint bottle.

           “Forgot about that beauty.” Tack glances at the bottle. “He won’t even know what it is. Smells like nothing, tastes like nothing.”

           We know what it is though: Tack’s hoard of liquid LSD. What we don’t know are how many micrograms are in there, how many hundreds of hits—a lot, too many, enough to make all of Alma High School trip like Looney Tunes for two days. Half the football team buys a dose before each game, the hicks in shop class weld like magic on the stuff, and even quiz bowl captain Emily Dunlop bought four drops to celebrate winning regionals. That little breath mint bottle seems impossible to empty.

           “Probably they won’t know.” Hector holds it up to the light. The weak winter-gray sun gleams through the perpetually filled bottle. “But maybe I should drink it, just to be safe.”

           A devil smile cracks across his lips as he starts to unscrew the lid, and Tack slaps his hand. “You’d turn into fucking sputnik. Even worse than you are now. Dump it on the floor mat. Who gives a shit.”

           “Haste makes waste. I’ll just drink it,” Hector says.

           I lean over the console, grab the bottle out of Hector’s fingers, jam it down my underwear. “Just lose that joint,” I say.

           Hector takes another hit, and another one. He rolls down the window, makes like he’s going to ditch it, then offers it to Tack, to me. We yell at him to toss it. The cruiser’s gaining even though Tack hasn’t slowed down. The cop must be edging one hundred.

           “Slow down, Tack.”

           “I will not,” Tack says. “That’s an insult to this piggy’s intelligence. He knows what speed I was going. I’m no liar.”

           Tack sounds tough, but I see his fingers tapping. He’s nervous like me. My mom always said all it takes is riding in the car with someone stupid to get arrested. According to her, she could’ve been the president if it weren’t for her hanging around my dad when he was young and wild. She’d blame anyone for anything if it meant not blaming herself. Now she’s too scared to walk to the mailbox to collect overdue bills. Her world has turned tiny as a Sheetrocked perimeter. I won’t let that happen to me. Still, her warning seeps through my head like blood spilled on snow.

           Hector takes one final hit. He sticks out his tongue and mashes the cherry on it, swallows the roach. The cruiser’s on top of us. A ticket is inevitable. Search likely. My heart throbs. I’m afraid for a ruined life I haven’t even started. Which is bullshit fear, being afraid of an idea, the future—that’s just ghost breath. That’s what my mom does, what I can’t do. The Corsica could blow up right now and burn our bodies to char. A deer could sprint across our path and send us ragdolling through the windshield. What could happen can’t matter or else I’m stuck.

           I grab Hector’s collar and pull. “Get back here.” I bite his ear.

           He climbs over the center console, scrapes his back against the sinking ceiling fabric. The Corsica looks too small to hold this giant boy, to hold the three of us that are too big for small shit, to be stopped and stuck, to be afraid of what hasn’t happened and doesn’t exist. The future lies like a bitch.

           As soon as Hector squeezes into the back, I crawl onto his lap. When the cruiser’s close enough for me to see the silhouette of the driver’s hat, I pull my shirt over my head. I push my tongue into Hector’s mouth. He’s already hard, and he works at the button of my jeans. It’s just a show for the cop, but Hector, of course, is ready for anything. The cruiser sidles up next to us. Still no lights. The cop’s twisting his neck, dying to see all he can.

           Hector has my pants undone, his fingers rubbing against my underwear. He pulls the elastic and dips his fingers against my skin. I burn. Fear evaporates. I’m with Hector, and even if this cop is getting a show and Tack is gawking through the rearview, Hector’s fingers and lips and thighs against mine black it all out. I’m lost in my own diversion, like an idiot.  

           The cruiser’s lights clip on. Tack says, “About time.” Hector reaches deeper into my underwear, and then yanks his hand free. He has the bottle, that fucking cheater. He played me while I was playing everyone else, and I bought it. He smiles and slips the bottle into his front pocket. I want to love him and I want to kill him, and I can’t figure out if he stole the bottle to protect me or because he wants to swig it like Alice in Wonderland and become big enough to wear Michigan like a mitten.

           After we park at the side of the freeway, the cop jots on a silver clipboard, and then he’s walking toward us. Hector hands me my T-shirt, but I wait until the cop is passing by my window to put it back on. He takes a long look, eyes still on me when he asks Tack for license, registration, proof of insurance.

           “You know why I pulled you over?” Tightly trimmed red hair blazes across the cop’s temples. His upper lip is naked, missing his cop mustache. He looks about the age of my dad.

           “Just trying to get these kids to church on time, officer,” Tacks says smiling, his fat forearm melting over the window.

           “It’s my fault, sir,” I say, sounding sweet as shit. “We were being kind of distracting.”

           The cop raises his red eyebrows at me, glares at Hector. “You two got IDs?”

           “Nope,” Hector says, before I can pour on more.

           He studies Tack’s license for too long. “Wrong way from Alma if you’re trying to catch church.”

           “We like our churches big. Headed to Lansing. But these lollygaggers have been making us late with all their sinning.” Tack throws up his hands, shakes his head. “Kids, you know. Can’t beat ‘em, can’t sell ‘em off to child slavery.”

           “Don’t be smart with me, Mr. Huff.”

           “Hard to help with a mind like this.”

           The cop flicks his fingernail against Tack’s ID three times. “All of you are going to need to step outside.”

           We exit the car. It’s cold as hell on the freeway, no buffer from the bare fields. Not even a stray pine tree breaks the wind rifling across the scraped-out farmland. I shiver like crazy, and Hector puts his arm around me. The cop yells for him to keep his hands to his side, then says, “You boys pretend like I just pounded nails through your shoes and stay put.” He jogs to the cruiser’s trunk.

           “Toss that shit,” I hiss at Hector.

           Hector gazes across the traffic zipping by, out at nothing.

           “He’s holding it?” Tack says. “You dumb-shit crazy asshole.”

           “If he doesn’t find it, I get to keep to keep it, OK?” Hector keeps staring off. His hands are buried in his pocket, and I bet he’s rolling the bottle in his fingers, maybe clinking it around with those freaky dead-dad gold teeth.

           Tack snorts. “You can keep half. That’s your grand prize for being stupid.”

           I can’t stop shaking. “Your prize will be getting ass-raped in prison.”

           The cop returns carrying a blanket. It’s the blanket they probably use for domestic violence victims and jittery ladies who run into deer and little kids they rescue on Amber alerts. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I can smell their fear in its fibers. But he wraps it around me, smiles small and secretly at me. I can feel Tack’s greasy teeth smirking. This cop is smitten. I did that, proved useful. And I might get us out of this.

           The cop’s hand traces little circles on my back. “Now, boys, I’m going to need you to place your palms on the hood of the car and spread your legs.” He leans over and whispers in my ear, “You warmer now, sweetheart? Wanna sit in my car?”

           “I’m fine, thanks. But we’re going to be late unless we go soon.”

           “Only a few minutes, doll. One way or another.”

           The cop starts with Tack, sweeps his hands down to his waist. “Anything sharp in your pockets?”

           “Keep rubbing and you might find a roll of quarters,” Tack says over his shoulder, and then mutters, “fucking ginger cop.”

           The cop pretends not to hear this, dumps a handful of Tack’s pockets on top of the Corsica. He extracts three lighters, a Gideon pocket Bible missing half its pages, a postal scale, wads of yellow-splotched toilet paper that flutter off into the ditch, a pocketknife, a taped-up twenty-dollar bill that also shoots off in a gust, a book of matches, tweezers, a travel bottle of cologne, and his keys. The cop holds up the postal scale and lets it tinkle in the wind. He presses the tweezers against his nose and inhales.

           “You owe me twenty bucks,” Tack says.

           The cop picks Tack’s keys off from the hood, and then swipes the rest of Tack’s junk into the ditch. Tack ticks his tongue, takes his dangling keys from the cop’s fingers.

           Hector is next, is softly giggling at Tack. He’s still just wearing a T-shirt, but the cold can’t touch him. It never does. The cold or the heat or the rain or the snow. He’s a weather chameleon. And now, this cop is just another inevitable threat that can’t faze him. When the cop pushes him against the car, he’s still smiling. When the cop fists his ponytail and jams his head into the hood, still smiling. He only stops when the cop whispers in his ear, and then they both stare at me, and that’s the moment when Hector’s smile cracks like Michigan pavement. His body stiffens. The cop must’ve said something about me, and that killed Hector’s rubber band act. I can tell he wants to do terrible to this red-haired man.

           The cop digs into Hector’s pockets and withdraws that weirdly too-large key his dad left him. “Alma Works,” the cop reads off the key. “This looks like something you’re not supposed to have.”

           “Why’s that?” Hector asks. “Seen one of those before?”

           But the cop ignores his questions and drops the key to the concrete. Next he flips Hector’s pockets inside-out, and the two gold teeth sprinkle and bounce, and I’m surprised Hector doesn’t reach for them. If that’s all I had left of my dad—no, fuck it. I wouldn’t care. I’d be grateful if metallic scraps were all that was left of my dad, his giant burdensome body reduced to obscure artifacts I could shed and forget. But Hector won’t stop watching them—the key, the teeth, all that’s left that he can’t figure out what to do with—even as the cop holds the bottle of acid up to the cloud-clogged sunlight.

           “What do we have here?” The cop shakes it, unscrews the lid, examines the dropper.

           “Breath mints,” Hector says.

           The cop holds the vial to his nose, sniffs like he did the tweezers, as if everything illegal will smell like cinnamon. “I believe that is bullshit, boys,” he says.

           “It’s high-grade explosives obviously.” Tack waves his arms. “It’s deadly poison. It’s hydrofluoric acid that’ll eat right through your face. Or, maybe, it’s just mints for my boy’s motherfucking bad breath.”

           The cop rests his hand on his sidearm. “What did I say about you being smart?”

           Hector snatches the open bottle from the cop. “Look, it’s nothing.” He holds the dropper over his mouth. And I wait. I watch one bead form at the end of the dropper. A semi roars beside us, and I imagine it inside that drop, overturned, crashed, blazing flames. The bead swells, falls fatly into Hector’s mouth. A couple weeks ago, Tack made us take our hits through the eyes, said it was the fastest way to absorb. It snowed for hours that night in big, wobbly flakes. The ground clumped up in blankets. We climbed Hector’s mom’s roof, took turns jumping into a pile of snow-padded leaves. We grew wings, grew shells, became bowling balls with feathers.

           That night we only took two drops each.

           Hector hovers the dropper over his tongue, let’s three more drops fall. He smacks his lips at the cop. Hector plunks more drops in his mouth. Tack says the federal government considers you legally insane if you’ve taken seven hits of LSD in a lifetime. I’m three hits past in my lifetime, and Hector has that on his tongue now.

           The cop retrieves the bottle from Hector, sniffs again. We all watch as he lifts the dropper over his own mouth, then seems to think better of that and drips onto his pinky, rubs it against his gums. “Doesn’t taste like anything,” he says.

           “I have a sensitive stomach. This is special prescription stuff.”

           “How can your breath smell better if it smells like nothing?”

           “Kills the bacteria,” Hector says. “Clinical halitosis. My disease runs deep.”

           They stare at each other, waiting for I don’t know what—spontaneous combustion. Nothing happens. Just like every day in Alma. But something will happen today. They’ve both taken Tack’s drops. It’s coming for them and I don’t know what’ll be worse, the rush of so many hits all at once or the cop’s impending trip without explanation. Cause missing effect. I wish I could be there to see this pervert go nuts in his cruiser. His steering wheel will become an imperfect circle he must solve. Passing cars will stretch into streaks. He’ll sprout a mustache of fire. He will calculate the earth’s exact mass and then he’ll invent time travel and then shit his pants.

           The cop circles behind me, hand on my shoulder. I see him crouching in the reflection of the window, feel his bent kneecap against my thigh. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride, honey,” he coos in my ear. “Just step on my toe if you do. My daughter is the same age as you. I can help.”

           So I’m his daughter. He’s no perv, just wants to save me. I bet his daughter is unsalvageable, dates a thirty-three-year-old biker and blows him every night in this cop’s driveway. And now I don’t want to think about this cop-dad’s head splitting when the acid trip takes over. I unwrap myself from the blanket and place it in his arms. I don’t have time for pitying strangers.

           “Straight to school, boys.” The cop opens the car door and flicks Tack’s ID and papers inside.

           “Take a bite outta crime and say no to drugs and shit,” Tack says to the cop’s back.

           I’m shivering again without the blanket, but Hector is busy scraping key and teeth off the concrete. Tack revs the engine. I turn and watch the cop. His head is bent, his cap off, his red hair pointed at me. He might be filling out paperwork or crying about his daughter. It doesn’t matter and I can’t care. All that matters now is we’re on our way to church, a new path, a new religion. On our way to Oso who will fill our freshly emptied pockets with future.

 

 

DUSTIN HOFFMAN WRITER.png

“Go to Oso” is an excerpt from the novel-in-progress No City, Michigan. Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Washington Square Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com.

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