Cornbread and Milk

By Toni Scales

“I wish they’d hurry their asses up.”

“They’ll be here.”

Monte pacing again, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his low-slung jeans. The waistband of a pair of white boxers peeking out, a cigarette drooping from his mouth.

Jim sucks on his own, bites back the urge to cough. He hates cigarettes. “Stop pacing, dude. I said they’ll be here.”

“I don’t like it,” Monte says, not to Jim, but to someone else who isn’t there. “Don’t like it one bit.”

“We don’t need ‘em, anyways.”

“Like fucking hell we do. We don’t need ‘em.”

Monte’s stupid. Jim knows it, and Monte himself knows it. He’s got good plain street smarts, though, something Jim doesn’t have and desperately needs to learn. He’s the best teacher, they all say.

But he could never tell Monte he likes English. The only fucking class he likes in school. That he looks forward to it, even, in a perverse way. Better than having his ass kicked by his old man all the time.

Like when they read Hemingway last week. The Sun Also Rises. Those long-ass French meals, all the–what the fuck were they called–aperitifs, what a trip, they ate and drank like nobody’s business. As if it all hadn’t happened like eighty fucking years ago. The same. People never changed. All they wanted was to eat, get drunk and get laid. There was something beautiful in that. The guy got his dick blown off in the war or something, the girl was pissed ‘cause he couldn’t fuck her properly... It tripped him out. It reminded him of himself. Why, he couldn’t explain.

But he could never explain that to Monte. He’d probably beat the shit out of him.

His idea of culture is playing X-box. Grand Theft Auto.

“Your mom know where you are?” Monte asks.

“She’s drunk off her ass.”

“She’s a cunt.”

Jim hides his flinch, as if Monte had struck him a blow. Even though it’s true, he knows he doesn’t mean it. In his own sick way, it’s a compliment.

You wanted this, now you’ve got it. Gotta ride it all the way.

A picture of his mom flashes before his eyes. She’s sitting in front of her vanity mirror, shaking out her long, black hair. His dad used to call her “Crystal” after Crystal Gayle, because she’d let it grow past her waist. Their song was always “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”... They’d be dancing in the middle of the kitchen floor like idiots, humming and laughing, practically screwing right there. At least, when he wasn’t knocking the shit out of her.

Jim had tried to stop him, once. His mom went ape-shit on him. Her hands hard on him, pushing him away, slapping at his face. The shock and shame and hurt in her eyes. Like he’d been the one that had punched and kicked her and left ugly, mottled bruises on her arms and neck for fifteen years.

A wave of black bile rises in his throat. Tears sting his eyes but he blinks them back. Smoke and breath hiss out in one furious plume.

Monte stops pacing. His lips curl back in an ugly grimace. “Fuck this shit. I’m fucking tired of waiting. We do it now, then run back to the house. They’ll have the door unlocked. If not, we’ll run out back and jump over the fence. Hide out on the patio.”

Jim nods. His feet feel frozen in their black, steel-toed combat boots. He scuffs the soles across the hard, shiny gravel, reveling in the defiance of that abrasion. It’s too damned cold to think. The adrenaline is like a pulse, a motor set to running, a thin steady beat waiting to kick in and seduce him.

“So who will it be?” he asks.

“Doesn’t matter. But they gotta be old. Or a woman. Somebody weak-lookin’. You’ll know. You’ll feel it. It’s all about the feel, the ride, you know? Like sex. Like crack. It takes you for a ride. It’ll be a good trip. You just feel it, man. Smooth as ice.”

Yeah, Jim was high and tripping already. Good shit it was, too. Everything in his line of vision hard and glittering and polished.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Flicking their cigarettes out onto the cold, black, wet finger of the street. The butts ricochet off the asphalt, where they hiss and spit tiny fumes. Jim raises the hood of his jacket over his head and thrusts his hands in his pockets. His tall, lean body moves with the wind.

A man walks out of the pharmacy. Hunched over, wobbling, a brown paper bag cradled in his gnarled hands.

No, Jim suddenly thinks, Monte’s face a black blur on the periphery of his vision. It’s too quick, too easy. It doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Suddenly he thinks he’s going to be sick. The high is diminishing already, leaving behind this vague sickly urgent emptiness, and he needs another hit to ease his stomach.

No time, man. Gotta do it. Just do it. Like the fucking Nike commercial.

Something about the old man, the feeble way he’s walking, reminds him of someone.

Glasses. Watery eyes. The old-man shirt, the polyester kind with needlework on the front. Ballpoint pen in his pocket. ...Jim’s grandfather had always kept a pen in his pocket, to use everyday on the crossword puzzles he loved. He was too smart to use a pencil, for he always knew all the words. When Jim was nine, he’d shown him how to eat sweet cornbread soaked in a glass of milk with a spoon. They’d eat cornbread and milk and watch The Love Boat together. Or Fantasy Island. God, those shows were great... Later, Jim would get to sleep in the big bed, nestled right between his gramma and grampa. Everything warm and cozy and safe, the portrait of Jesus glowing and winking at him in the dark, his gramma’s delicate head propped on a weird pillow to keep her crazy beehive hairdo safe. God, he’d loved his grandparents. When they both died within a year of each other...

The rapid blur of motion is like a dance. A scene in a war film. No music, no voices. Utter silence amidst a storm of images. Running, shooting, falling and ducking on the ground, bodies flying...

The old man suddenly doubles over, sucking in great gulps of air as if he were choking. Jim realizes Monte’s dealt him a single felling blow to the gut.

“Dude! Get the wallet!”

Jim’s shocked into action. Suddenly his hands are like instruments, or surgeon’s hands. Smooth and quick and precise, as if he’d been doing this for years. The paper bag’s already been mashed into the ground. Orange plastic bottles have burst and splintered on the sidewalk, like weird, angry sunsets. Red and blue capsules wounded, their guts spilling out in white powder and granules... He’s found the bulging leather wallet. Now the man falls in a sitting position to the ground, sensing the end, clutching at the pain in his stomach as if he can remove it.

“Run!” Monte yelps.

Faster and faster now. Still the music-less soundtrack–only this time it’s accompanied by the hollow, reverberating thud in his ears. Somewhere, a part of his consciousness dislocates, watches him detachedly from afar. He’s fascinated by how his body knows where to turn, even though his mind doesn’t. This way, that way. Smoothly, seamlessly.

Why, in that moment, does he think of her? The one in his English class (what was her name, Sarah?), with the short brown hair. Just like the chick in the Hemingway book. She’d look great in that weird style of dress they wore back then, the cropped hair, no tits (though hers were pretty big and beautiful), the boyish, sexless dresses. The way that chick had thrown herself at the narrator, rubbed against him in back of all those damned taxis they took across the moonlit city... Jim had been hard under his desk, thinking about it, about his Sarah.

Later that day, he’d had to go with his dad to the supermarket to buy formula for his infant brother. They couldn’t buy the expensive kind, they had to buy the generic with food stamps. He’d tried, fumbling and ashamed, to tell his dad about Sarah.

“Have you fucked her yet?” his dad asked loudly in the aisle.

“No, Dad.” He was hot with rage and embarrassment. But he couldn’t tell his dad he was still a virgin. The conversation had been dropped until his dad noticed a young girl, no more than ten years old, in the canned vegetable aisle.

“Hey, son,” he’d asked with a leering grin, pointing to the girl. “How ‘bout that one?”

“I dunno, Dad. She looks pretty young.”

His dad laughed, a rough, gravelly sound. “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed, right? Well, she’s probably a little bitch, anyways. They all are, son.”

They’d said no more after that. Jim had thought maybe his dad was right.

Back at the apartment, the door is thankfully unlocked. Ron and Kevin are waiting for them. The air is permeated with the stench of weed, beer, and cheap incense.

“You got it?” Ron asks.

Monte snatches the wallet from Jim, lumbers to the couch and slaps it in Ron’s hand. The two begin talking, but Jim can’t make anything out. He mumbles something incoherent, goes to the bathroom, and locks himself in.

Harsh spasms of vomiting shake and rattle their course throughout his body. He sinks into the corner, his tall, too-big body wedged between the toilet and the bathtub’s mildewed edge. Huddles his knees together and wraps his lanky arms around his legs and lets his face fall into the darkness of denim. It’s like a cave fragranced by the smoky, vomitous stench of his breath. He cries softly, like a young child, like when he did when first his grampa died, then his gramma. The doctors had said it was the emphysema that finally did her in from the smoking, but she’d been fine before; he knew, after Grampa was gone, she’d had no reason left to go on. Nobody to make her “famous” sweet cornbread for or yell at for forgetting to turn off the TV.

His body shakes with the force of his sobs. He thinks he can hear music from the living room, a black voice raised in angry rap. Somebody knocks on the door but he tells them to go away, everything’s okay, he’s fine...

He’s hungry. Hungrier than he’s ever felt in his life. He wants his gramma’s cornbread and milk. He can taste the cold, white milk, the golden, sweet, fluffy cornbread, light as air.

Hours seem to slip by. Finally, he hears the front door of the apartment burst open. They’ve found them, as he hoped they would. A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. He wonders if they serve cornbread in prison.

Seconds later, a cop busts through the frail bathroom door, and Jim looks up with a tear- streaked, swollen face, already resigned, hungry, and praying for the worst.

(C)opyright 2009 Toni Scales All Rights Reserved

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