(This is a 4000-word short story that contains some adult language and situations)
I’d known Dennis’s mom since Dennis and me were in second grade, since the days when she would come out on her cedar deck in that grey and blue jumpsuit of hers with her macadamia nut cookies spread over her tray while me and Dennis jumped on his rusty, squeaky trampoline. That was back in the early Nineties in Nebraska.
Now Dennis had gotten himself lost in LA. His mom—Sandra was her name—she called me about it. She called me at work.
I worked at a shelving factory in Des Moines. I was a chemical engineer but they had hired me to program a laser to cut those little notches that hold the shelves in place.
For the past week, I ended up taking about half of her calls that she made to my work phone. She would get herself drunk by noon and then work herself into frenzy, calling every other hour on the hour until I left work at five. She had become a peach Schnapps drunk—the worst kind since the Schnapps was so gentle to her. It gave her staying power. It left her with these remnants of logical thought that were more painful for me than the comic rants of the bourbon and whiskey drunks I had known from growing up in Papillion. She called one last time, right before five on Friday and I decided to answer.
“They got him, Teddy!” she said.
My name is actually Sid. And Teddy was her estranged husband’s name. She got us confused. We were both tall and reticent. Teddy estranged Dennis and his mom when Dennis was in the eighth grade and just discovering girls.
“I know they got him, Sandra,” I told her.
“He said he was going there to catch up with Stallmo.”
The conversation dropped for a moment while she breathed in the receiver and went someplace inside her head. Stallmo was a one-hit-wonder of a screenwriter that Dennis had met in Oklahoma City while Dennis was working his first ad-agency job out of college. Stallmo wrote a movie script about sex and teenagers—Sexy Teenagers, it may have been titled—and he had bought a beautiful house in LA to finish off his young life while celebrating.
“All they do is cocaine,” she said. “They do cocaine and they sleep and sleep and they sleep with sick whores! I’ve seen dark whores in the dream.”
“That’s beautiful, Sandra.” I leaned over my cheap desk as a wave of something strange hit me and made the hairs stand on my neck. I pressed my hand against my hot, tearing eyes. “That’s really beautiful and polite of you. I’m eating a chocolate doughnut now, Sandra.”
“Denn—Deddy… Ted. Do you think we’re all alone if we don’t even have our son yet?”
“I suppose so. Yes.”
“Deddy gotta go get him and pull him outta all’a this. Go to… down there. Pull him out of there. It’s a vortex—”
“A what, Sandra?”
“A vortex, a vortex of fancy and craziness. Music and women—no focus! No purpose. That’s death”—she let out a soft belch, then sighed—“No focus and no purpose is death. Sick. A vortex of white. I know things. I’m not stupid. It’s hell! What I know makes it hurt so much worse. Sid. Sidney!”
“You get him. Go down there and get him back to me.”
“Yes, Sandra. I will.” And I meant it. It was time to end it. Dennis had always been empty. He’d follow anyone to fill himself up but he was still my responsibility. We shared so many memories. I’d inadvertently mentored the kid for so much of his life that it would have been irresponsible of me to abandon him now, even with him headed so steadfastly toward the liberal’s self-destruction.
Sandra told me the address of the screenwriter, Stallmo’s, house in LA. I mapquested it, getting some maps so I’d have the lay of the land. I bought tickets online and took off work. I told my boss it was a wedding but it wasn’t, it was like a renewal of vows. Dennis needed to admit that he had miscalculated, that our Midwestern values were what really mattered. He might have lost his father but he still had people in his life that had told him what mattered: God, Family, Community, the love of others—these were all the things he should have been spending his time thinking about instead of wasting his life away like some coward afraid of hard work and commitment.
After the plane landed, the stewardess told me to smile and relax as I disembarked and in the cab I was sure that the cabbie was fleecing me and driving me around in circles. I spread my Mapquest printouts over the cab’s backseat and greedily watched the cabbie’s every move and turn. He kept asking me, “So, is this your first time in LA?”
“Yes!” I blurted. “It’s my first. I’m green! I didn’t want to fuck with a rental and I know your company charges no more than three-hundred to get from the LAX to San Cruez! Is that okay?”
“Okay, man,” he said. “It’s cool. Sit back and relax.”
He turned up the radio and started humming to LA Woman.
“Am I jealous of you, Dennis?” I mumbled to myself.
The cabbie exited onto this Spanish street that wasn’t anywhere on any of my printouts.
We rolled to a stop in front of a shabby brown house. It looked like a starter home from some 1950’s suburb and there was an El Camino in the driveway with four flat tires.
“405 Mercetta,” the cabbie said. “Two-hundred and ninety on the meter.”
“I’ll get out here,” I said. “I’ll find it on foot. Here’s three-hundred. It’s all I have.”
Dennis’s mother had described the house as being so beautiful—the Shangri-La of houses. But the house number read 405 in dingy brass like a testament to the unreliability of human perception. The cracked sidewalk leading to the door was overgrown with crabgrass and covered so heavily in cigarette butts that I couldn’t feel the cement. It was only ten AM yet the stereo inside rattled the windows with some bass line—The Beastie Boys—No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn.
“Assassins!” someone shrieked from inside in falsetto. There were pink gas bill notices crammed inside the doorframe. I smelled urine and my gorge rose. Someone was in there but it couldn’t be Dennis. It couldn’t be Dennis, who in the eighth grade had cried in class after the teacher had embarrassed him for saying Canada was a country in Europe. This was the address his mother had given me but Dennis could not be inside. Something that had grown out of Dennis and taken over his skin and thoughts could be inside but not Dennis. He could not be inside.
I knocked on the door.
I knocked again. They were in there, making me wait so that I would look stupid. They thought that I might leave without him.
I pushed the door open.
The small entryway was dark and empty except for scattered pizza boxes. It led to a Spartan family room with just a Plasma TV on a cardboard box and some Bose satellite speakers sitting on the grimy food-and-footprint stained beige carpet. This anorexic Asian girl was barefoot, dressed in daisy dukes and a white halter. Her hips and shoulder bones cut through the air like menacing knives as she bounced and pranced around on a plastic mat in front of the Plasma TV, playing Dance-Dance Revolution.
“I’m here for Dennis,” I told her.
She thought she could ignore me.
I walked closer to her and barked at her, “I’m here for Dennis.”
She turned around and her eyes got big. I could tell from the thick scars on the outside of her eyes that she’d had a cheap, botched surgery recently to add Caucasian eye folds and I was terrified of her. “Hey!” she said and threw open her arms to embrace and collapse on me, “Sal!” She nuzzled me and I smelled her B.O. “Sal! Sally! Good-ol’-Sal! My love! My sweetness!”
“I’m here for Dennis,” I repeated as her skinny frame pulled me into her.
“Dennis?” She pulled away from me and looked up at me. “You’re not Sal?” She retrained her attention back to Dance-Dance Revolution. “Dennis is asleep in the Ghost Room.”
“Ghost Room?” I asked her.
She pointed to a bare, drywall hallway. “The one with the stupid corners. The one that makes your skin crawl when you’re rolling. It’s full of ghosts. Can’t miss it.”
I set out down the hallway in search of the Ghost Room. A bedroom door on the left was open and Stallmo was inside. He was arguing with a beautiful bleached blonde woman. It seemed like she was scouring the room for missing cigarettes or something while trading barbs in her matching black bra and panty set. I knew it was Stallmo from this red satin cape that he wore. It had the word “Stallmo” stitched across the back in thick white letters. He turned to me.
I stepped back.
He was naked beneath the cape and his huge erection pointed at me. I hate to see another man’s penis. I think men are programmed to wish they had the only penis.
“I’m sorry,” I said and I tried to walk away.
“Larry,” Stallmo said. “Larry! Don’t go, my friend. We have much to discuss. Do you remember the treatment I sent you for that, sort of, Noir remake of Four Rooms? I’ve got a new twist. It cuts deep, Larry. It cuts deep!”
“I’m Sidney,” I said. “I’m here for Dennis. Where’s the Ghost Room?”
The blonde flipped over an empty pizza box, scanned the carpet for something and looked up in exasperation. “It’s not love if you take a pill to get an erection with me. You’re twenty-six, Stallmo!”
“It’s mine,” Stallmo said as he grabbed his erection with his full hand. He turned to address me. “Are we doing lunch?”
These people were so out of it. I could tell that Stallmo had shaved his head bald recently because he had red nicks all over his white scalp. His slender body was muscular and emaciated so you could see the tendons and veins. He was such a waste. I felt no need to be pleasant or polite. The rules didn’t apply. “Tell me where the Ghost Room is.”
Stallmo put his hand on his hips and pointed his erection at me. “Fine, friend, fine. The Ghost Room,”—he ruminated with a hand on his nicked scalp—“that’s the last door on the right.” He pointed toward the hallway, outside.
“No it’s not,” the blonde said. She lit a cigarette and sat on a bare mattress.
“Yes it is,” Stallmo countered.
“He said the Ghost Room, Stallmo.”
Stallmo looked back at the woman. “I know what the man said, Stevenson. The man asked me where the Ghost Room is. I told him how to find the room in which I see the Ghosts. That’s the last fucking door on the right, my darling.”
“Oh.” She blew smoke and looked at it. “Yeah—like—right…”
“Uh,” I said. “I’m going to leave now.”
“You look uncomfortable,” Stallmo said with his hips turning and his veiny penis inspecting the room. “Do you want a Xanax?”
“No. Thank you.”
I decided to trust Stallmo and check for Dennis in the last room on the right. It was his house after all. The door was closed. The knob was locked as I wrenched my hand over it again and again. “Dennis!” I pounded the door. I pounded again and kicked a pizza box and some red beer bottles out of the way. Beer and wet cigarette butts poured out of the bottles and over the carpet. But who would care. This wasn’t a home. This was a house.
“Dennis,” I yelled. “I’m coming in! I’m coming through this door, Little Denny.” I slammed my shoulder into the door and the wood buckled in the center, popping the doorknob latch out of the frame.
Dennis was inside, sitting on a black leather task chair facing a card-table desk. The room was wallpapered and coated in Sexy Teenager memorabilia and he was stooped over the desk scribbling inside of a glossy magazine. He looked different. He had become a man. He had put on some muscle and fat since his mother and me had seen him off to college. But he was still short and he still had the same thick, blonde geometrically-perfect crew-cut.
He turned to me. “You’re going to pay for that door, whoever you are.”
“You don’t know who I am, Dennis?”
He looked up at me with those doe eyes and grinned. “You’re one of those guys from Paramount, huh?”
“No. Are you high, Dennis?”
“Always.” He spun on his task chair. “Always, always, always.”
“I’m Sidney Jackson. We grew up together, in Papillion.” I watched his face for a reaction. “Papillion, Nebraska. We went to Anderson Grove Elementary School together. Then LaVista Junior High.” I watched him. “Then Papillion/LaVista Senior High?”
He jumped up and opened his arms in jubilance. “Sidney!” He bounced around and gesticulated like he was pushing up the sky, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” He milled around and touched pensively over his lips. “Oh. Oh! I see. I see. Yes. Oh.” He looked me over. “You’ve changed. You don’t look like the Sidney I used to look at. You’ve put on a few. Your hair is getting some gray. Why are you here—?”
“I haven’t changed,” I said. “I know who I am.” This was important to make clear. Everything in that house was shifting. I was the bedrock. “How long have you been here? What have you been doing here?”
He got excited. “I’ll show you!” He motioned me over to his desk. “I’ll show you, Sidney!” He began flipping through the pictures in what was a copy of Ok magazine. The magazine was filled with pictures of celebrities running errands and leaving nightclubs. “Here!” Dennis fingered over a photograph of himself standing behind Stallmo at a black tie premier. He had circled himself in black ink. He flipped through a few pages and fingered another one, “Here!” The top of his blonde crew-cut peaked just above the nuzzled shoulders of Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds ala Where’s Waldo. He flipped more pages. “Here! … Here! Here—I know them! Here!”
“Why did you do this?” I asked him.
He looked up at me with incredulity. “To see where I fit in. Everyone’s gotta know where they fit in, in the grand scheme of things. Nothing’s more important than that, Sidney.”
“Yes there is… wait…”—I didn’t want to play his game—“Dennis, you don’t fit in here.” I looked around the room at all his stuff: Sexy Teenagers posters, action figures posed on shelves complete with tiny plastic beds and plastic indignant parents. He had beach towels and baseball caps and leather crew jackets all tacked to the walls and autographed by the cast. I pointed around the room. “Look at all this! You’re twenty-nine years old, Dennis. Look at all this!”
“You got filled up on the wrong stuff,” I told him. “You let it get inside you and you let it program you.”
“You’ve been talking to my mom, huh?”
Someone wrapped on the open door.
It was a tall young man dressed in a waiter’s black and white formal wear. He had high cheek bones, a long, bronzed face and stringy black hair and he was carrying two full cases of beer bottles, one on top of the other. “Can I borrows your bus pass, bro,” he asked Dennis, “I’m going to go get the refund for these here bitches.” He looked at the buckled door, “Whooooa!” He told no one in particular, “Temper temper.”
Dennis pointed to a home-made shelf of particle boards and cinderblocks near the door. “On the top shelf.”
The waiter walked toward the shelf and stopped. Realizing he’d have to set down the beer cases, he turned his head toward me and he asked, “Can you help a bro out, bro?”
I walked toward the shelf and Stallmo burst through the door, still naked beneath his red satin cape. He stumbled and caught himself on the waiter’s shoulders as he neared me, “You’re not Larry, man. Describe yourself!”
“Aye, bro. Bus pass, bro.”
The blonde watched us from the hallway. She was in a red Lurex bikini and cork sandal clogs now. She pulled her hemp bag purse from her elbow up to her shoulder and set her hands on her hips.
The waiter set down the cases of beer. “Shit’s heavy, bro.”
“Like I said: I’m here for Dennis.”
Stallmo steadied himself on the waiter with one hand and leaned closer to me with his satin cape open and his Viagra penis still in full effect. “What does that mean: You’re here for him? He’s already here.” Stallmo stabbed a thin finger at Dennis. “Here he is, man!”
“I’m going to take him home.”
Dennis stood from his task chair. “I’m in the fucking room here people!”
“This is his home!”
“His home—!”—I felt that rising sensation of wanting to hit a man—“is in Nebraska!”
“Stallmo…” the blonde whined, “I want to go to the DeGlassy Pool. Bloody Maries. I’m bored. Bloody Maries.”
“Then go!” Stallmo leered to the hallway. “This bastard,” he leered to me, “is trying to steal part of the family.” He tried to cover himself with his satin cape but then gave up the effort. “Me Familia!”
He stumbled toward a wall with a Sexy-Teenager production poster. It showed a teenage boy and girl with their feet poking out the end of a bed with shocked parents book-ending them. “This,”—he touched the poster, “This—first we thought it was just a screenplay. Then, then we thought it was just, just a movie, just a film. But we were wrong. Each time we thought we could put it inside of a box we were wrong. It was a beginning. It was a seed. A holy seed for us to water with love. It taught us that each moment leads to the next and that each moment is sacred.”
“That movie,” I said, shrugging and looking to Dennis, “it came out four years ago. It’s just a movie. It’s not some religion or some sacred quest.” I looked at all of them to try to see a reaction in their emotionless faces.
“Yah,” Stallmo said. He snorted laughter and slapped my back hard enough for us all to hear it. “Yah, sure man, and TJ’s Declaration of Independence was just a letter to the Queen.”
“Dennis is coming with me. His family needs him in Nebraska.”
“No, he’s not, bro.”
“Is he trying to take away our Dennis?” the blonde asked.
“Dennis is free to leave if he should so choose,” Stallmo said, holding his erection. “But if he does,” he turned to stare-down Dennis, “I will kill you. You will end this life that I have given you.”
“Shut up, Stallmo,” Dennis said. “I’m not going anywhere, Sid. This is my home, now—”
“This is not a home!” I said.
“Tell my mom I said ‘hi’.”
“I won’t—I can’t. Nebraska,” I blurted. “Come back to Nebraska with me!”
“Maybe if you had been nicer to him, bro.”
“He’s right,” Stallmo said. “Maybe if you would have loved him with your whole heart instead of loving yourself. Maybe if you would have hung on a little tighter, he’d still be yours instead of ours.”
I walked toward Dennis and my knees felt weak.
“Take off, bro. Go ahead and take off.”
I’d never felt smaller or weaker or less important. I was an ant in a huge, powerful world. “Dennis, you have to come back to Nebraska with me.”
“Why’s that, Sid?” he asked me.
“Because your mother, Sandra,” I laid my hand ever so gently over his back, “she died.”
“Liar!” Stallmo exclaimed.
“He’s lying to ya, bro.”
Dennis sat silent for a moment while I left my hand on his back and then he shook his head. “No.” He shook his head. “No, man. Are you joking? No. Please, no.”
“Why would I joke, Dennis?” I said. “You have to come back, Dennis.”
“It’s not true.”
“It is true, Dennis. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
He looked up to me and his eyes were watering and turning red. “How did it happen?”
“She slipped in the, on the kitchen and she injured herself. The, the doctors did all they could.”
He put his hands over his face and hunched over. “I loved her. I did.” He looked up to me. “Do you think she knew that I did?”
I felt this lump starting to form in my throat. “We have to leave pretty soon. The funeral’s coming up.”
“Sidney! Do you think that she knew that I did?”
I felt nauseous and I wanted to give it up and leave. I couldn’t let them best me though. He was mine.
“Use a phone!” Stallmo blurted. He thrust a finger into the air. “Use a phone to confirm her death!”
“What,” I said. My heart raced and my stomach fell and kept falling.
“Stevenson, give me your iphone,” Stallmo demanded.
“I left it at the condo.”
“Do you think that she knew that I did? Do you think that she knew that I did?”
“You,” Stallmo looked over his shoulder, “ah… waiter-guy—phone! Phone!”
“We ain’t got no phone no more, bro. We went to the Quick Shop last night to order the pizzas.”
“Shit!” Stallmo swept his fingers through the air into a fist, “SHIT!”
“I can’t believe,” I said. “I can’t believe that you would be so insensitive to your friend in his time of need.” I smirked so that only Stallmo could see but it was an empty smirk and with no pleasure in it.
“Fine!” Stallmo said. “Take him! Take him back to Nebraska. But you should know,” he walked closer to me, “in the next life, I’m going to do this same thing to you.”
“Where are you from Stallmo?” I asked him.
“Oklahoma City, dipshit.” He kicked an empty pizza box. “I eat souls.”
“My mistake,” I said. I turned to Dennis. “Ready to go, Dennis?”
Dennis looked very pensive for a moment. He looked up at me with such deep pain in his blue doe eyes—pain so deep it seemed like I never really knew him for even one second all those years—and tears streamed down his cheeks.
I felt the truth welling within me, brimming to the surface, but I needed this. My stomach fell.
“Do you think that she knew that I did, Sidney?”
The blonde’s eyes were red and I noticed that she was crying, the first true emotion I’d seen her show—a pure, unguarded emotion—and it made me think that I’d been wrong about this not being a family, that maybe I’d been wrong about everything and I was a stupid, foolish intruder; but, my past, my values, my lessons, everything I’d taught Dennis all those years, everything I’d been taught and everything I had passed along and Nebraska. Nebraska. Nebraska—Nebraska!
“Do you think that she knew that I did, Sidney? Do you think that she knew that I did?”
I bit the insides of my cheeks. “Are you ready to go?”
“Okay,” Dennis said. “I’ll—I’ll come home to Nebraska.”