GO SAY HI TO PEYTON
My uncle has a house full of rabbits. He’s into the secrets of the Egyptians. He tells me God gets one drop from every cup and one bite from every plate. His mouth is full. The animals slowly gather around my uncle’s feet. Their hair is long and drags behind their bodies. My uncle coughs and asks questions about my life. Political gatherings? Education? I have not seen him in many, many years.
“Where would you go?” he asks. He goose-steps closer, keeps his voice behind his mustache. “If you could go anywhere, where would you go and, what would you do?”
When I say “I don’t know,” he puts both hands on his hips and pretends to be angry.
He gags, wretches, and pulls the animals’ long hair from deep inside his throat. He gathers it in wet balls on the kitchen table.
Late that night, I find myself in the kitchen alone, and discover the rabbits digging furiously. My uncle keeps their cage on the kitchen’s wood floor, like a glass topper over a cake. Their paws are stained pink with blood and the planks have been cleaned a third through. I can’t explain how I know what wood floors are to rabbit feet.
Empty in the hall of a high school, except for a girl studying deeply. She’s small, melted to the wick. She holds out a chart. Of course, I take a look.
In the first frame there’s a baby straddling his mother’s stomach. In the second frame the same baby is there, straddling, but badly swollen. In the third frame, the baby appears speckled and rashy and puke waterfalls from its mouth. The mother’s mouth is also open, a big dark hole. In the final frame, fluid spews from all orifices and the dad has shown up. They’re screaming. The baby has doubled in size before their eyes. The small studying girl is nearly crying, gripping the paper.
“What’s wrong?” I sit beside her.
Cindy is the girl’s name. Cindy says, “How can I tell if this baby is a boy if there’s no lines?”
“Lines?” I say. “What kind of lines do boys have?”
Cindy makes violent x’s in the air with her arms.
When their enemies arrive the next morning, GREEK has been burned into my forehead. The heat is unavoidable. The sensation is hornets. From a safe distance, I watch Greek bodies slide down garbage chutes into containers of wet concrete. A cigarette dribbles ash down my shirt. I hold a bundle of letters from home. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is on the radio.
I watch a man smooth the concrete’s cold wrinkles.
A fat woman in white tells me everything while her toddler pecks at broken chalk on the sidewalk.
I was a terrible guest. I was nothing and part of no family and no one knew how I ended up with the Greeks who rode around on forklifts in the high afternoon, their shadows long, swindled, and naked. Why did I hold Greek children on my knees while their fathers hid slippers between their concrete thighs?
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, they screamed, and it was not horror but joy.
I have seen shelves of vinegars made from unheard of fruits. The sun’s rays are stored here and flash out from spoiled wood. Some jars are thick, syrupy, and 200 years. Heart junk. Everything belongs to a gothic baby king named Friday the First.
In a large notebook, I record and organize the vinegars by country of origin, flavor, color, and potential, but I’m interrupted by a stone penis banging against a lead pipe. He takes off his hat, and his hair ripples, long and strawberry blonde, to his waist.
I also have a body and want it wrapped in merchandise.
Two preteens live on a hill. Up the gravel drive. Past the mailbox shaped like split watermelon. The heat knocks 80,000 birds out of the sky.
We’re keeping secrets, me and the kids. Fine.
The kids’ parents are always gone and friends of the parents stop by the house to have conversations with the kids, out back, private and animated. I watch from windows. I keep indoors with a bottle of Adderall, baby bites, and a one-hitter. Until now, I’ve been younger than the parents whose kids I keep.
It’s morning and the kids wait in the truck, the boy watching me. I tinker. Metal and garbage. The boy stares, hangs, and falls from inside his mother’s blouse. It hits me. I can see a fire in the mirror of the boy’s eye, and it grows there like a fungus. I freeze with my hand on the truck door: Where are their elders? In the town, getting groceries, I have not seen them. Why isn’t anyone old?
I can’t move. I could cry. I’m years younger and on the far side of the mountain, however many miles away. The trees are skinny, teenage, and I’m out of breath. The air is thin and clear, and somewhere far behind me, I hear him, running and screaming, begging me to stop.
The trees are burning!
Near the coast I pick periwinkles when there’s a full moon and eat them for breakfast. I take the small ax and show her how to do it. Wet gouges where the ice is thin. I plunge my fist in deep and wave my fingers along the depth. I agitate and disturb the first layer until I feel round shell and rock. I pull mollusks. My hand burns around them, and I let her pick them from my fingers to put in her jacket. I do not look at her. I study the spot where the wet, wide field bends into tree and scrub and makes a cold globe over us. I do not care to see if she is having a good time or cold or concerned about the distance between us and home. This one’s on me.
An animal shelter gives me a bag of puppies to try. It was easy to do. Half a dozen dogs in a plastic shopping bag, wrapped up in napkins. On the bus, an old woman faints, and a second woman tells a third, “I have something to tell you, but not in front of the kids.” The puppies whistle. Buildings outside are curdling. My friend wrings his hands. He likes me, no money. The puppies pee on each other, and I get an earful about “starting over.” My friend is trying to show me a good time, but I can’t help but think, Stop it. Later that night, when it’s time to return the puppies and decide which is mine, the shelter is dark and locked. I bang on the door and a girl tells me I’ll have to try again tomorrow. I walk through a sad Chinatown. I never look inside.
I’m at a mall liquidation sale. Almost everything is gone. There’s nothing good. Straps. Keychains. Covers. Big panties. I get a few. It’s all so cheap. The walls have thick paint like the red on terra-cotta.
The checker is pregnant. She has a slicked back ponytail and meth mouth. She talks a lot and wildly. It’s clear, all the signs are there, and absolutely everyone else knows it, too. Another woman slowly backs away and doesn’t look the checker in the face. I give the woman a bad look for it and approach the checker. My things are on the counter. What am I buying?
“You know what I’m gonna do?” the checker says.
“What?” I say.
“I’m gonna buy this baby boy 10,000 dogs,” she says and touches her belly.
“And those 10,000 will become another 10,000. Because that’s what dogs do. Because that’s all boys ever want is 10,000 dogs.”
CHELSEA HOGUE is a writer, teacher, and editor from Mississippi, currently living in Pennsylvania. Her stories have been published in The Collagist, Juked, Black Sun Lit, Tinge, and Quarterly West. Essays and reviews have appeared in The New Inquiry, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Full Stop. She teaches creative writing at The University of the Arts. She hosts PP Party: ppdrinks.online.