portion of the artwork for Jeff Landon's short story

Jeff Landon

The next day I dropped off my brother Shag at the rehab center on Montgomery Avenue. He was shaking bad, babbling about his daughter, Lily, and the new asshole in her life. The Growing Tree—that was the name of the center, and true to the words there were trees all over the place. Pine, maple, oak, and something bent I couldn’t identify but it looked like something me and Shag used to climb on.

We poked inside, Shag still a shivering mess. A nurse and orderly—one of them smelled deeply of peaches frying—escorted Shag to his room. The orderly told me to let go of my brother’s hand. I told Shag I’d be back. When he hugged me, I pulled back from the weight of him, the sweat cling and misery of our lives.

* * *

The next day, I brought over some Diet Mountain Dew and a pecan pie from the Food Lion, but the nurse wouldn’t accept the food or even me. She said Shag was on a strict diet. She said, This is the hard part, the recovery, the shakes and night sweats and nightmare place. And one day, she said, he’ll be better. And then comes the rest of his life, she said—that part’s hard, too.

* * *

The next day, I went for a walk with my dog, Henry, and Shag’s daughter, Lily. Earlier, she’d given me some treasures to deliver to her daddy. A Toblerone bar, a half-eaten sack of almonds, last week’s TV Guide, two hunting magazines, and one glossy magazine on the Royal Family of England.

Lily reached down to scratch Henry’s belly, and he flopped to his back, panted, and slam-wagged his tail. I told him to stand up and show some backbone and the three of us shambled down an empty street littered with leaves and at least two condoms. Lily seemed distant, twiddling with her hair, and I checked her face and arms for bruises—but she looked fine. I promised her I’d give her gifts to Shag. Outside my house, she gave Henry one more hug, and said, Adios, Eddie. Tell Shag to clean up. Tell him we love him, still, she said. In spite of him, she added.

In spite of us, I said.

* * *

The next day, I went to Shag’s apartment to steal all his leftover drugs. Lily helped. She worked night shift at a factory that makes cookies and keeps our town smelling like vanilla when the wind is right. We cleared out Shag’s cabinets and drawers and helped ourselves to a few handfuls of mood enhancements. Nothing crazy, mostly Klonopin.

We each took a couple and drove out to see Shag. It was like National Bird Day on the drive there. Songbirds and mean birds all over the place. Buzzards eating road kill, and purple finches slipping out of trees, criss-crossing, music. We rolled down the windows and Lily lit a joint and I braked for hot dogs at this place that looked like a bunker but those hot dogs were the highlight of my life up until then. All my senses were amplified and everything felt liquid and close.

Anyway, we missed the visiting hours, and the night orderly gave us a judgmental snarl but took our gifts anyway.

Shag’s eating regular, he said. Playing ping-pong, even. He helps out around here, he said. Good guy.

I was standing there, like, OK, I get it. I suck.

* * *

The next day, I woke up surprised to find Lily sleeping on my couch and I hoped she didn’t attract bedbugs because that couch had arrived to my apartment via someone tossing it out to the street two months ago. Shag had helped me haul it inside in the middle of a persistent drizzle. That couch and two beanbag chairs served as my furniture set in my abode.

I fixed scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for Lily and we watched two Clint Eastwood movies. Talked about Shag. I didn’t ask about her boyfriend, and she didn’t talk about him. The eggs were flecked with red pepper flakes that looked a little too close to mouse droppings. We washed dishes side by side like we were a family, and then we took some drugs and nothing else happened that day. Nothing worth talking about, at least.

* * *

The next day, I walked to town, picked up my disability check, and drank three cups of Coffee at Mona’s Deli. Hands shaking, I moseyed across the street to Betty’s Beauty Box for a haircut. My regular barber was no longer working because he was dead. Betty snipped her scissors and complained about my cowlick but I can’t help that, I told her. That was God’s work, I said.

Hair fixed, and coffee working, I rented a bike from the lesbian bike place. I was already out of money but my friend Terri let me have a bike on the promise of a rapid payback and a loaf of my small-town-famous banana bread.

I pedaled out west, out of town and into the country, on my way to Shag. Last night, on the news, they’d reported a bear loose, a grizzly, dangerous and hungry. I kept an eye peeled for that bear but I only saw a bunch of squirrels and a cat with no tail.

Halfway to The Growing Tree, I felt dizzy, dehydrated, sick. I changed course. Aimed the bike back to my place, and moved my legs just enough to stay upright. Lily was waiting for me, on the stoop. Her hair caught the light and her tennis shoes were all marked up with the hearts she liked to draw on them.

Inside, we ate cereal, Captain Crunch, and talked about drugs. She wanted to stop. I’ll prove it, she said.

She made a big show out of dropping her pills, one by one, into the sink and down the drain.

That was wasteful, I told her, and she gave a look I’ve seen before, from teachers, police, Daddy, and my ex-wife. A look that said, When will you stop it?

* * *

The next morning, I woke up early enough to make a day of it with Shag. He looked good, clear-eyed, clean-shaven, all of it. We ate hard-boiled eggs and melon slices in the courtyard. Shag pointed out a sugar maple tree, just starting to turn orange. Ground workers armed with Weed Whackers edged the winding sidewalks. People moved along, hugging each other, even crying. A family of four had gathered by the scuzzy-looking pond. Three of them—a mother, father, and brother—kneeled in prayer while the sister smoked a cigarette and looked embarrassed. She wore overalls that looked more city than country. Black, silky-looking. Shag was talking about ping-pong. That’s all we do around here, he said. We take our meds, do our walk, eat the eggs, and play ping-pong.

He asked me about Lily and I told him the news.

She left that guy, I told him. She’s off drugs, I said.

Shag leaned back in his wrought-iron chair and let the sunlight splash all over his face. I left him there. We hugged a decent and honest good-bye. In my car, in the rehab parking lot, I swallowed a pill of something strong, and then I drove back to where I lived.

On the way home, I played a tape of Hank Williams that meant the world to Shag and me. It’s direct and pure and it hurts. Hank sang, I steered, and the drugs kicked in hard. I almost missed my exit: Robinson Lane. I made a hard left, dug up some gravel, and let the wheel right itself.

Three dogs witnessed the whole thing. They stood together on the top of a long-sloped hill. They looked regal, and disappointed. I wanted to brake, pull over, and make those dogs accept me as a friend. I would throw a ball to them. Put chicken in their dry food on holidays. Pat them on the head when thunder boomed. Stand beside them on rainy days and even comb out their tangled hair. I could do this. There were still a few things I could do OK.

Jeff Landon’s Comments

This story came about in two ways. One, my sister knows a guy named Shag. He’s a handyman. Two, an exercise I use in creative writing classes. Write a story that takes place in one week, break it down into seven sections. Start each section with the words (or a variation on these words): “The next day.” I got the idea from a fantastic short-short called “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil, but she used “Before that” as her repeated opening. I’m always interested in the mystery of where stories come from—an image? Something observed? A scent? For me, I need to have a really clear visual sense scene to scene, and the thing I still love about writing is the element of surprise; how you can start with a kid holding an umbrella and it all opens from there. We all have so much inside us, so many pictures and gestures, colossal losses and tiny victories. I’m sure most people reading this are also writers, and the thing we share is getting lost in the dream, how the story, even if it’s not great, turns into a waking dream, and there’s that moment, when it’s really going well, where you look up, realize a couple of hours have gone by, and go, Holy shit.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 50 | Fall/Winter 2017