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"Room Dark", short story excerpt

Thursday 3/5/20

“My dad died of a lot of drugs, not a little.” Billy said it like a boast.


“I want to comfort you,” I told him.


“That’s gay.”


“I’m a girl.”


“Girls can be gay.”


He had taken me out of the room at the wake. I wanted to take him out of it. Do the shepherding. I considered that would have been the apt word. The name Billy on someone else has always made me think of rubes. Overalls and crankshafts. Glazed backs. Wraparound sunglasses. I thought that way even at thirteen, except with Billy. His dad taught history when he had jobs. They had him cremated. The urn was not on a table in the main room but instead a marble pedestal where it seemed it’d be easy to knock over. At some point there’d be inevitable dust upon the carpet. Ash or flakes. Whatever the term was. But maybe somebody taped down the top. His mother was drunk and most of his family. They were drunk at a lot of things we went to, but different kinds of drunk. On boats in summer at other people’s places like ours they were happy drunk. A lot of them would put an arm around me, mumble things about what to cherish, though they didn’t seem to remember themselves the next day.


“Stay out of people’s way,” my mom said. I looked at my dad. My dad in a suit made me proud. He looked leaner and longer, ready to protect us. He didn’t indicate “yes” with a nod or “don’t worry about it” with the absence of one, standing at the edge of my mother, a little behind her, like he might have sometimes when my mom was upset and the way he’d nod or did not was akin to a judicious edit. I think he probably wanted me not to get knocked over. I was short and compressed, mini-ironing board leaned up in the corner. The tall people—Billy’s family was tall—didn’t walk reliably.


Billy and I sat on a case. I didn’t know what was usually packed in it. I didn’t know what room we were in. A behind-the-scenes room. There were wigs on other tables. You could hardly see in the darkness, but the wigs had a glow. Maybe it was an undertaker thing. Compensatory head color for pallid cheeks. It was August but some moonlight just looks like autumn and the kind coming in through the one window was that kind. Has more parchment in it, less beam.


“Maybe they bury midgets in boxes like this,” Billy said while we sat. He was drunk, too. Someone must have figured, “we can make an exception today his dad just died,” or else he took care of it on his own. My feet dangled and kicked against the box. It sounded empty. There wasn’t a midget body in it. You could say midget back then. I imagined bodies in boxes in lines like cars on the highway waiting for their turn in the big room where my uncle’s urn was, but they’d get a table, not a pedestal, but still marble. Maybe somebody dropped in a box of baking soda to keep you fresh.


“If I kissed you what would you say?” Billy asked, which confused me. I didn’t know if it was a trick question, because I wouldn’t be able to say anything if our lips were touching. You can’t talk then. I hadn’t been kissed yet. I wanted to get all of my answers to his questions perfect. I wanted to be exact, I wanted to be kind, I wanted to vanquish doubt. I wanted to be certainty.

“I want to comfort you,” I told him.


“Show me your tits,” he said, slurring the last word, but I knew he didn’t mean it. When we were kids we took acting classes together and I didn’t know until later that my dad paid for Billy’s. Billy had them on his own first and I looked up to him and I was shy so Billy’s mom said to my mom, “Why don’t you sign her up? They helped bring Billy out, now he has an outlet.” It sounded so damn electrical when my mother told me what my aunt had said. He took out his phone, moved it in front of my face, like he had surreptitious photos and would show them to me to prove I did have tits, which normally I thought I didn’t.


“That’s him,” he said, as I looked at the first photo of my uncle on the kitchen floor of Billy’s house, their house. It seemed like you could only see his legs and his face. The legs had absorbed the torso, the neck as well. His arms were under him. They would have been asleep from the weight of his body on top if he wasn’t dead.