We’re so pleased to present our first fiction story of the 2018 season, a happy-sad tale about getting through tough times.
By Matthew Kok
Every two months, Garrett performs at assembly. He times it out, so people will keep thinking he’s so good and so talented, but doesn’t overdo it by performing too often. If he sang at every assembly every week, then people would think he’s showing off. He is showing off, that’s just how he masks it.
I hate it when we’re all crammed into the cafe and he steps up there with a guitar. He says hi to the entire school with that little Southern twinge that he says he got from “growing up in Georgia for the first few years of his life.” I know he’s putting it on because it always gets a little stronger when he’s on stage. The whole crowd has this electricity, a bunch of the girls always whisper to each other. Not only grade 11s, either, almost the entire High School. Then he sings, and I hate it even more because he’s good. He’s damn good, and he doesn’t do the country-pop bullshit that I expected him to when he first walked up there with his H&M checkered shirt tucked into his pre-ripped jeans. He sings folk songs real slow, and sometimes he makes people cry. One time, he sang this song by a guy I couldn’t even really pronounce the name of until I googled it, Townes Van Zandt. The lyrics weren’t all lovey-dovey or anything, really it was kind of about keeping going through life. I liked the song as a whole, but at the beginning, he grinned to himself and sang the first few lines. The song had him singing to his “babe,” which, first of all, weird. Like, switch the word to “infant” in your head. Then, he wouldn’t say he loves her or needs her, but he’s gonna “get” her? And in the last line, he says he won’t do her wrong, which, apparently, makes up for all that. Jen, right next to me, and some other girls in our grade went “Woo!” like he had proposed to all of them at once. All I could think was, that bastard.
After assembly walking to our lockers, I tried explaining it all to Jen. “I mean, why would you even want that to be sung to you? He won’t tell you he loves you or needs you, but he’s gonna ‘get’ you? That’s so messed up!”
She gave me a look that said I was being an idiot. “You want to be got?” I asked. “Nobody wants to be got.”
“By him?” she said, and smiled. “Sure I do.”
“But why? It’s like you’re his, and now you have to like, do what he says or some shit.”
She stopped at her locker and turned to look at me while she scrolled through her combination one-handed. “Obviously it’s not literal, Andy. It’s just a term. If he tells me he wants to get me, and I want him to get me, then it’s not creepy. If he was, like, a guy following me down the street—”
“Give it 5 years.”
“—then it’d be terrifying,” she said through a grin. Probably grinning because she could imagine it too. “But it’s Garrett.” She said his name like he was a guy in a movie, walking out of the ocean with teeth shining and abs rippling, instead of a guy who wears too much flannel and buys designer belt buckles.
“Okay, well I know he’s not saying he’s literally gonna capture you, but he’s still telling you, right? Like you have no choice in the matter.”
She shrugged. “True, but also you’re freaking out over lyrics he didn’t even write.”
I folded my arms. “As if he’s talented enough anyway.”
“I thought you hated the lyrics.”
She pulled out a binder and her science textbook and closed her locker. “He’s confident,” she said, “or at least he sings like he’s confident. If he wants to “get” me, I still choose what that means. You’re just freaking out ‘cus you’re jealous.”
The bell rang, and I realized I didn’t have my books or anything yet. I was going to be late, and Jen knew it too, but she just grinned at me and walked away.
My dad works from home. He’s the hardest working person I know. He’s been like that for a few years now, ever since it became just us. Our apartment isn’t huge or anything, but since he lost his job, he’s been supporting us doing odd jobs and picking up any kind of work he can find.
He started doing yard work for our apartment building at a slightly cheaper rate than the company they used to hire, but he does it all himself. The owner of the building rents out a weed-whacker and a lawnmower for him to use. After a few weeks, he busted the weed-whacker on a part of the fence, so he took it into our living room and he’s been fiddling with it ever since. It takes up about half of our kitchen table, where we eat sometimes, but it’s not a big deal since the table’s mostly for storing random stuff anyway.
He also does occasional construction work. When one of his friends, Barry, doesn’t have enough men, he’ll call up my dad. There are a couple hard hats strewn across the apartment, some reflective vests. He has gloves and blue jeans crusted with little bits of cement on the floor of his room. His room is the messiest part of our place. His jeans always seem so stiff, too, lying on the floor, never in that comfortable mushed-up position. It’s like his jeans get filled with concrete, and there’s no bend to them.
Along with all that, he started proofreading essays for some students at the college down the road. He’s good at math, too, so he helps some people with tax forms in our building, mostly older people that have trouble reading the forms, or again, college students or recent grads who don’t know what they’re doing. The thing is, he has to advertise both these jobs all the time, so he prints out flyers, one for essays, one for taxes, and cuts the bottoms into the little tear-away bits with his number. He got a deal on bulk printing, and he needs to keep putting new ones up around our area if he’s gonna get new customers, so he prints out like 200 at a time of each. There are massive stacks of paper around our living room at all times, one for each type of flyer, and a few smaller stacks according to the way he organizes the essays and the tax forms.
He’s always most tired on the days when he’s been busting up pavement and putting it back, and has to come home to read college essays. “These kids are useless,” he says, leaning his head on his open palm, elbow on the table, covering paper in red ink with the other hand. I never want to be that useless.
I am sometimes, though. The anniversary was coming up, and when that happens, Dad sinks into his office chair even more than usual. Jen knows the date too, though, and comes around a lot, so today we were chilling, watching The Wire on the couch. Dad was in his office. All of a sudden, on the TV, there was a scene in a strip club. There were all these women walking around, like fully nude.
One of the strippers walked up to one of the detectives and offered him a lap dance in a really hoarse voice. I pointed and said, “That one’s you.”
Jen squeaked, then laughed. “You shit,” she said. “She looks like she smokes three packs a day.”
I listened to the low bass from the show’s club music, as we were silent for a minute. “Is your dad still quitting?” she asked.
“Not really, but he’s cut down a lot.”
She glanced to the ashtray on our little balcony, overflowing with butts. I kept looking at the butts on the screen.
“Is he…” she trailed off. I looked at her, and I could tell she had something she wanted to say, but wasn’t saying it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted her to. She looked at the screen and said, “That one’s you.”
A skeevy thin guy who obviously made the women uncomfortable scratched at his own arm as the detectives went over to talk to him. He spoke in a thin, nasal voice, like it was barely getting out. I laughed, and reached across the couch to shove Jen. She shoved me harder, so I fell into the armrest. I stood up and tried to look intimidating, but she just got up laughing and shoved me again. I stumbled backwards a bit, bumped against the coffee table, lost my balance, and fell against the wall, so one of the tax stacks exploded. My stomach dropped.
My dad came out of his office, greying beard and all. “What are you guys?– Oh, godDAMN IT.”
I froze. Jen froze. The world stopped.
I could see my dad gritting his teeth, calculating in his head how many hours of work it was gonna be to fix my mistake.
“Oh my God, Dad, I’m so sorry, it was an accident—”
“We didn’t mean to, Mr. B, I pushed him—”
“I can figure out how to put them back together just tell me how and I can do it,” I said, bending down and scooping papers up. I was trying to restart the world again and racking my brain to remember what I knew about taxes from TV and things I’d heard my dad mention, but he didn’t yell again. He put his hand to his forehead like he was checking if he was sick, and he said in a quiet voice, “No, it’s fine. It’s fine. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“I can help you put it back together,” I said.
“No, it’s fine. They don’t have to go back to Ms. Coretta until next month, so I can spread it out. It’s fine. I can spread out the work a little bit.”
It was quiet as my dad went over to the fridge for a drink. “Wanna take a walk?” Jen offered. I nodded.
It had been almost two months since Garrett’s last performance. Assemblies are always on Friday, and it was Tuesday. During lunch, we get to walk around and eat wherever we want, so I was looking for a friend to hang around with when I saw Garrett talking in hushed tones to Stacey, one of the girls he flirts with all the time. He was sitting next to her, holding a Coke. He always drinks Coke for some reason. She was sitting down, with one hand on his leg. I decided to go over to them. “Hey Garrett, hey Stace,” I said, as I got there.
“Hey,” said Stacey.
“Hey dude,” said Garrett. God, I hated him.
“Are you, uh, gonna sing on Friday?” I asked, realizing I had no purpose for talking to him other than to interrupt his perfect little world for once.
“Yeah, actually, ah’d been plannin’ on it,” he said, with that stupid, probably fake Southern accent, “How’dja know?”
“Oh, I was, um… I was only wondering. I know everyone loves it,” I said instead of, because I can read you like a book, you piece of shit, and you always time out your attention-grabs the same way.
Stacey smiled and touched his arm lightly, “I didn’t know you were gonna sing on Friday! That’s so fun, I love it when you sing.”
“Ah, well, thanks to both of ya,” he said, with that stupid, humble grin. Jen came over to join us, punching me on the arm.
“Hey Stace, hey Garrett,” she said, probably trying to keep the longing out of her voice.
They both nodded at her, and Stacey looked at him. “What are you gonna sing?”
“I was thinkin’ I’d sing this song, “Slow Parade,” by A.A. Bondy. One of ma favorites.”
“It sounds nice,” said Jen, “I love it when people show talents at assembly, like when you sing or Vic plays the piano. It’s honestly the only interesting part.”
“Ah, it’s not that big a deal,” said Garrett. More stupid, fake humility.
“Maybe not for you,” said Jen, “but it’s not as easy for everyone. I think it’s brave, too, to put yourself out there like that.”
“I—” I blurted out. They all looked at me. Shit. How could anything I say compare to Garrett’s angelic, self-absorbed voice? “I was actually—I was thinking about doing something,” I said. Shit.
“What?” said Jen. Shit, shit, shit.
“Oh, you play?” asked Stacey, Garrett glancing at her then me.
“No, no,” I laughed, “I, um—” shit, shit, shit, “I wanted to try… stand-up.”
Jen’s eyes widened. “Aw, nice!” said Garrett, clapping me on the back way harder than he needed to. “You’re a funny dude, I’m sure it’ll go great. Didja already tell Rob?” Rob was the English teacher, in charge of planning the assemblies.
“Oh, no. I was, uh, looking for him, but I couldn’t find him so I’ll just bring it up tomorrow. It’s fine, y’know. No rush, right?” Perfect, that way I could “forget” tomorrow.
“Oh, no worries man, he always hangs around the tech booth with the boys,” said Garrett, “I can go ask him to give you a slot.”
I gaped at him. The bastard was calling my bluff. He knew I was talking out my ass. There’s no way he would offer to do that for me. He wanted me to crash and burn.
“Yea!” I said, feigning excitement too loudly. Loud enough that Stacey kind of recoiled. I caught myself. “That’d be—great,” I said, as Jen’s eyes continued burning holes in the side of my head.
“Awesome,” said Garrett, “I’ll go let him know now. C’mon, Stace.” He gestured to her and they both got up and headed over to the caf. They waved at us as they went.
Jen folded her arms. “What the hell? You don’t do stand-up.”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at her. I started walking toward the doors of the school, and she walked alongside me. “Now you’re just not talking?” she said. “Why did you lie? Are you that jealous of him? Are you trying to be Garrett right now?”
“No,” I said, pushing the doors out and stepping into the sun, “I’m not trying to be fucking Garrett.”
“So why did you lie?”
I kept walking. I always talk at the wrong times—shoot my mouth off talking to Garrett, bother Dad when he has to concentrate.
“Andy,” she said, and grabbed my arm. We stopped. “Why did you lie? You can’t just ignore me.”
“I—” Everything was happening at once, I couldn’t back down now, I felt myself about to cry or something. I leaned against the wall of the school and pinched my own arm, so that Jen couldn’t see. “I don’t know, okay? I don’t know.”
She stepped over to the other side of me, saw my fingers pressing into my arm, and slapped them away. “What’s wrong with you?” she said, not accusing, just sad and surprised.
I knew what was wrong with me. Six years ago, I was 11. Car crash. A Dodge Ram swerved across the boundary and into my mom. I bawled my eyes out for a week, until the tears stopped coming. Still, even after that, I couldn’t think or speak or do anything but eat and sometimes sleep.
My dad and I spent the days before the funeral quiet, moving from couch to bed to shower to couch to bed. I never once saw him cry. I heard it at night through the wall. He spoke at the funeral, but even then, it was just what everyone expected of him. He didn’t actually say anything about her. I don’t think he was able to. I wouldn’t have been.
“I’m gonna… I’m gonna do it, okay?” I said, in between deep breaths to keep my voice steady.
“Of course that’s okay,” she said, as if I’d never had to worry. Maybe I hadn’t. “Are you okay? You’ve been acting weird. I know the anniversary is coming up—”
She let the words hang there for a second. I could tell she wanted me to say something. I looked away.
“—and, if you need anything, tell me, okay?”
I swallowed and nodded. “Okay,” I said, and then the way she looked at me I knew it would hurt her if that was all I could say. “I can’t… talk about it right now. But I think, like, some day I will? Is that okay?”
Jen nodded, pursing her lips a little. Then, she hugged me for a long time, and it stopped me shaking. I don’t know how she knew to do that.
When I got home, Dad was in the kitchen, sandwich in one hand, looking over some tax forms with a calculator in easy reach. “Hey Dad,” I said, dropping my bag by the door and stepping out of my shoes.
“Hey buddy,” he said, turning to grin at me, then looking down at his work again. “How was school?”
“Oh, like yesterday, huh?”
“Yup,” I said, walking behind him to take the other sandwich he’d made.
“I think Friday last week was pretty good too, actually, funny how that works.” He grinned to himself.
“Mystery I guess,” I said, taking a bite, and with my mouth full decided to take advantage of his good mood. “Hey, do you have any favorite comedians?”
He stopped and looked up, like he’d written the answer on the ceiling earlier. “Mmm, have you ever heard of Stephen Wright?”
“Oh, he was great. I think he had a cameo on That 70’s Show, but he had the best deadpan out of anyone. He could say something ridiculous with a straight face, and in this low gravelly voice.” He turned and leaned against the counter, talking with his hands a little. “And everyone would think ‘what?’ and then they’d get it, and crack up. His stand-up was great. Why do you ask?”
I shrugged. “Just curious. He sounds cool. I’ll check him out.” I turned to bring my sandwich to my room and figure out what the hell I was gonna do about Friday.
“Oh, hey,” Dad said, catching me. “It’s kind of crunch time for me over the next couple nights. Are you good to take care of your own breakfasts and lunches? Might be takeout for dinner.”
“Works for me,” I said, and turned away again. Crunch time.
The next three nights at home were spent like the days after she died, quiet. Dad’s work was piling up. He had that look he gets when he’s stressed, and all times seem like the wrong time. I sat on the couch, trying to write comedy, watching comedy, seeing if I could make myself laugh. “Have you ever noticed,” I mumbled, “how if you give, like, a serial killer or an IRS agent or a great white shark an acoustic guitar, people still like them a little more? Like, he could be actively stabbing your wife, and you’re just thinking, does he know ‘Wonderwall?'” I snorted at that one, and my dad looked up.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. He looked back down at his work.
I wrote the guitar one down, because might as well. The anniversary was coming up on Saturday, and I didn’t really feel like laughing, so if something made me chuckle even a little, I wrote it down.
Friday, I found Jen before assembly. She was sitting outside the art studio, reading.
“Hey,” I said, approaching her.
“Hey! You all ready?” She cocked an eyebrow.
“Probably?” I said.
She nodded. “Alright then—” folding up her book and leaning back—”let’s hear one. Gimme your opener.”
“You’re gonna hear it in a little while anyway,” I said.
“Well, I wanna hear it now first.”
“C’mon, I don’t—”
“Private show!” She clapped her hands together like she was summoning a servant. “Indulge me.”
I stayed silent. She started reading my face, and then looked a little annoyed. “Oh, no no no, you are not backing out on this!”
“Jen, c’mon, I don’t do stand-up, it was stupid to—”
“I’m gonna embarrass myself, you d—”
“Jen, I don’t want to do it.”
“Yea, but you said you would.” She sat there with her arms crossed, as if she was the one I had made the commitment to. The bell rang, which meant we were all supposed to file into the cafeteria for assembly. I was scared, and she could tell. “Do you not have any material ready?”
“No, I have some.”
She stood up, book in hand, and started walking. I followed mindlessly. “Did you laugh writing it?”
“Then it’s funny!” She glanced at me as we walked. “Don’t back out. If you go up there and bomb, tell everyone you were just trying something new. But don’t back out. Tell fart jokes, who gives a shit.”
I laughed at that idea, and even considered it for a moment, but then we were quiet as we got into the folding chairs they put out for us each week. I sat on the edge of our row, so I could make a break for it if I needed to. A few teachers got up and talked at us, and eventually Rob called Garrett. He stepped up onto the stage, designer belt buckle, designer flannel shirt, designer pre-ripped jeans. He said hi to the audience, and they all sighed as if he were perfect and real. “It’s been,” he said, kind of catching on his words, “it’s been a kinda rough time for me lately. Um—”
I stared up at him.
“—my—my uncle passed recently, and he had been a father to me in a lot of ways.” The entire room was silent, as Garrett Rogers bared his soul to the audience. “So I wanted to sing this for him. I’ll stop talking now.” He laughed sadly. “Here we go.”
He sang, slow. The lyrics were shadows and rain, not getting girls. Nobody “woo”d this time. It was tragic, and he was such a stupid, good singer. He got through to the first chorus, and his voice wobbled a little. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry because of the song, or because he was upstaging me so damn hard that I would actually have to cancel now. I couldn’t even think about that anymore though, because he was back into the chorus, and you could tell he was fighting to keep his voice steady. He was losing a little. He was underwater. But at the end, he belted it out, and it sounded like his throat was filled with tacks. The last note hovered in the air.
He stepped back as the audience exploded. He waved to everyone as he got offstage. Everyone was clapping, a bunch of people in our grade stood up. They were all so happy he’d performed and sad for him all at once, and I guess so was I, he had performed so well, but still, all I could think was, that bastard.
Rob went up. “Thanks very much for that, Garrett. That was utterly beautiful.”
He called me up. He said my name, he said “Andy.” I looked at Jen like headlights were flying at me and there was nothing I could do. She gave me a sympathetic look, mouthed I’m sorry, and then shoved me, in my chair, out into the aisle.
My chair slid on the linoleum and everyone kind of giggled. I didn’t remember standing up and walking to the stage, but then I was there, microphone in hand, looking at everyone I knew.
They all looked at me. I didn’t say anything. They all kept looking at me.
Jen kept looking at me. I didn’t say anything, and now I had been quiet a little too long for someone holding a microphone. I couldn’t believe they made me follow that bastard. I looked at Rob, and he was kind of shifting awkwardly, like he might stop it if I just stood here for a little longer.
Jen stood up from the crowd, cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Talk, you idiot!”
Everyone laughed. “Alright, alright, Jesus,” I said. “There was this one time. I was a kid, and my parents and I were at a park—” my voice broke a little—”or something. Whatever! You know, parks.” A few people in the crowd snorted.
“So at parks there are always geese, always, and I don’t know if you guys know this,” I said, and then stopped for a second. I realized tears were coming out of me. I could feel them running down my cheeks. But, I was speaking fine, and I couldn’t stop now. “But, geese are terrible. They’re the worst. Besides them shitting everywhere, they’re also mean. Kids don’t generally understand this, and I was a kid, so I just thought geese were grown-up ducks. Like, there are two types of bird in parks: ducks and geese. One of them is bigger, so obviously that one’s the momma, right?”
People were actually laughing. “So I had little pieces of bread or pop tart or whatever food we had appropriated for the waterfowl, and I toddled up to this goose, probably like my size.” I crouched down to kind of give the image, holding my arms up like there was a massive goose in front of me. “And offered it some bread like a nice, normal member of the animal kingdom, and it looked at me, and it hissed. Did you know that geese hiss? Geese hiss. I was offering it peace, and it flared out its wings, and was rearing back to wreck me with its hell-beak, and then out of nowhere.” I smiled remembering, and crouched down further. “My mom sprints over from the bench and straight tackles this goose.” As I said it, I kind of mimed it out, and everyone laughed hard, and I saw Jen laughing too, with surprised eyes, and it occurred to me that I had never told her this story before. “But when you tackle a goose they don’t go, ‘oh, okay, sorry to bother you,’ and descend back down to hell, no, they get extra pissed.”
“So this goose,” I said, as more and more waves of laughter rose and died in the audience. I was more animated than I had been all week. “Is just wailing on my mom, and she’s trying to stand up, and my dad has run over and, you know, try and help his wife and child. He kicks away the goose, scoops me up, and all I remember is being carried as my parents sprinted away from three or four geese.” People were starting to recover, finally, and I had nothing else to say.
I wasn’t sure when my own tears had stopped, or even if they had. Jen was smiling and crying a little and clapping. I knew everyone else was clapping too, but I couldn’t even hear them.
Matthew Kok lives and works on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, or Vancouver, BC. He is a prose editorial assistant at PRISM international. He has poetry available in The Scrivener Creative Review and The Lampeter Review, and he is currently working on a memoir that braids his family’s stories with his own. He would love it if you emailed him, at firstname.lastname@example.org.