WINNER OF THE 2015 “CITIES GONE WRONG” FICTION CONTEST
Catherine Flora Con
The night Luke first disappointed his father, the house looked formidable despite its peeling yellow paint. Already there were sandbags against the door in case the hurricane hit, though it wasn’t supposed to come until Thursday and even then it would just be rain. He turned the key in the latch and the first thing his father said was, “Lock the door.”
Luke did, and his father jiggled the knob to check it himself. In the living room, Luke sat on the couch with his elbows on his knees.
“You’re late,” his father said.
“By two minutes,” Luke said.
“No excuses, boy. We send you to these parties for a reason.” He took a metal box from its place under the carpet, beneath the couch, and turned the combination. Inside, dollar bills were lined up in neat stacks, from one-dollar bills all the way up to one-hundred.
Luke watched as he straightened some of the bills. A breeze threw sand across the floor. “I was wondering if we could talk about this.”
“My friends were there.”
“You know what I always say. It’s not personal. It’s business.”
“Family business,” Luke said.
“Don’t be smart with me.”
Luke’s mother padded down the staircase in her sunny pajamas, her blond hair in rollers. Around her ankles, sprayed-on tan appeared in marigold stripes. “I just don’t know what to do with you, Luke honey,” she said, one hand on her hip. “You just have too many friends.” She turned to his father. “Is it even possible to send him to a place where he wouldn’t know anyone? You should have taken that rich girl’s purse, Allison or Ashley K. or something.”
Luke stiffened. Allison Krueger had been there. She was his roommate’s old girlfriend.
His father shook his head. “You both know this isn’t about friends.” He turned to Luke. “So where is the money?”
Luke took a few crumpled bills from the pocket of his jeans.
His father pursed his lips together like he did when a flight was delayed or his steak was overcooked. His mouth was a thin line. “That’s it?”
“Tell me, Luke, what is the plan? Every party we go to, what is it?”
“‘Have some beer, not too much, take the wallets, and get out.’”
His father counted the bills onto coffee table. “Five, ten, fifteen. You were supposed to bring three hundred dollars. Not fifteen.”
His mother picked up the bills to take them to the kitchen, where she would wrap them in tin foil so that ghosts wouldn’t get to them. This was something the women in Luke’s family had been doing for three generations. “Fifteen dollars is a start, sweetheart.”
His father looked out at the ocean like it was speaking to him, giving him a go-ahead about what to say next. “We don’t need a start. This is tradition. It was started long ago.”
Luke couldn’t meet his eyes, so he looked down at his hands. In elementary school, he had longed for veiny hands, like his father’s, because they looked to him like strong, grown-up hands. Now though, he looked down at them and they did not seem like his own; they looked like the hands of a man he didn’t know.
Money didn’t thrill him. It was colorless and papery and hard to come by. He preferred things like a glass water bottle or a pocket knife. It was surprising how many people carried knives. The ones he had in his desk drawer reminded him of different things: protection, adventure, resourcefulness. Some of them had can openers, others you could open with a flick of your thumb. He always thought maybe he’d sell them, but they weren’t worth that much and besides, if he got rid of one of them he’d have to give them all up, because they belonged together.
Growing up, he sometimes let his red shirts hang on one side of the closet and the blue shirts on the other, but usually he was sure to move them around for each shirt to spend time alongside the others. And he did his best to wear all of them the same amount throughout the week if he could, although secretly he favored the blue shirt with the thin white stripes.
Always, he’d thought about objects this way. Once, when he saw a watch left on a piano at a party, he took it because it looked neglected by the pianist. He gave it as a present to his mother, who was sure to take care of it. His father examined the leather, the gleaming square-shaped face. It was worth ten grand at least. “Very good work, Luke. This could be used for something.” But when they took it to the pawn shop, it turned out to be a fake, worth less than ten dollars.
Luke had tried to steal money, really he had. When he saw a purse sitting on a chair by itself, he usually could find at least fifty dollars. But it wasn’t the money he wanted as much as the trinkets that came with the bag. He kept a few key chains in a drawer, and he especially liked the kind that looked like they were from a friend who went on vacation, where they had someone in sunglasses write his name on a grain of rice. Of course, the key chains didn’t have his name on them, but he had five of them now: Latasha, John, Susanna, Matthew, and Lizzie.
Before Luke disappointed his father, he was at a party. He stood looking around at the fireplace, at the people, and out the windows. He was holding a beer but not drinking it, and Allison Krueger’s back was to him. She was standing near the ping pong table–too near, he thought–in a white dress. The cloth-covered buttons down her back looked gentle, the flower pin in her hair beckoned him to stay where he was.
The last time they talked, he learned that her parents owned three beach houses, one at Seabrook Island and two at Folly Beach. Her grandfather had founded a school or something, or maybe he’d founded the yellow school buses? Luke couldn’t remember. “You can get one-hundred dollars off of her at least, easy as pie,” his mother had said. Last summer at a garden party, she’d taken an entire jar of bath salts from the Kruegers’ master bathroom. But Alison wasn’t like other rich girls. If he took anything from her, it seemed to him that she would be hurt, not angry, and so he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
In August, before classes started, Allison had come up to their room late one night, out of breath. She’d sat on Mike’s bed with her knees pulled to her chest. Berry, the all-girls dorm where she lived, had been an orphanage during the Civil War. Some claimed it was haunted, and every few months, the fire alarm went off for no reason. Allison said she’d heard children playing and the sound of a ball being rolled around overhead. “I know it’s stupid,” she’d said, “but I’m on the fifth floor. There’s no one above us.” That was the night Mike broke up with her, and Luke remembered she was crying a little when she said, “Talk to you later, Luke” before she left.
Now, Allison was watching the doubles game. She was clapping and screaming and grabbing the ball when it bounced off the table, when she spun completely around on her heel, like a figure skater, and saw him.
“Jake!” she exclaimed.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Luke, Jake, they both end with K and E.”
He hadn’t intended for it to be funny, but she laughed with full velocity. She set her drink down on the ping pong table and threw her head back, closed her eyes for a second. It was humid, and although they stood near a fan, a few strands of hair clung to her neck. “I’m so sorry. Are you going to mountain weekend?”
Luke said he wasn’t sure, he might have to study.
“Well,” she said, “Elliot Landers asked me to be his date, even though–” and here she put her face so close to his that he could smell beer and grassy perfume, “he’s gay.” Her breath was hot on his cheek. “Mike is jealous though, I think.”
Luke raised his eyebrows. “Elliot Landers,” he hazarded, “is really good at theater.”
“Isn’t he? And last year he was in Equius, so we all got to see him naked. Anyway, I don’t really care who I go with, as long as it’s someone.”
From where they stood, he could see people gathered around the small pool outside but no one had been pushed in yet, they were just standing around. The game had turned into beer pong now and Allison was horrible at it. She wore her purse across her body. It was small, made of brown leather, and he wondered if she had bought it in Europe over the summer.
He wandered into a den where video game controls were askew on the carpet. It smelled of burnt popcorn, and he was about to leave when he saw it on the couch. It looked familiar to him, the edges frayed and the small Fossil logo in the leather. Where had he seen it before? He couldn’t place it, but knew that it came from somewhere in his memory. If it was familiar to him, then it belonged to someone he knew. Well of course it did, he knew everyone here. Yes, but it really looked like someone’s. He would much rather take some girl’s purse. Oh but where would he hide it? The music was loud, too loud. He couldn’t concentrate. He worked better under pressure; would it be easier if there were lots of people around?
It doesn’t matter whose it is, he reminded himself. Get out, get out.
The leather was soft and well-worn. He took the wallet mostly because he liked what it looked like, like something that had been passed down from a father to a son. It fit easily into his back pocket, and he took that as a sign that this was meant to happen, this was the wallet he was supposed to take tonight. His father would be pleased.
“I was wondering where you went,” Allison said when he entered the kitchen. “You want some?” She was eating slivers of chips and putting them in dip.
“I’ll get you some more,” he said. He felt confident now. It had been a while since he’d last taken money. A few months, at least. He felt like he could do anything. He opened the pantry and took out two more bags of chips, emptying one of them onto a platter.
He wondered if his mother would wrap the entire wallet in tin foil, or just the bills. She’d always been delightfully scared of ghosts, and every now and then he saw her watching at the window in the living room at night, before closing the curtains and turning off the lights.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was a guy in a pink polo shirt. “Did you hear? I’m not surprised. Ain’t no such thing as a brotherhood anymore.”
Other people were looking around, turning over couch cushions and peering below chairs.
“Maybe he left it somewhere? And forgot?” Luke said. He began looking around uselessly.
Mike came in with a brunette at his elbow. “Did you find it?” she asked. “I have to go home soon.”
“Did you have a lot in there?” Luke said. He felt his stomach plummet.
“Come to think of it, I only had about fifteen bucks cash.”
In the morning, his father said good morning to Luke in his formal way, then got right down to it: Evenly spread cream cheese on his bagel. “Just two drops of cream,” he would say to flight attendants when ordering coffee on airplanes. But they were always nervous and brought the cream for him to pour himself. Everything to him was like a performing art – particular, beautiful, and more often than not, practiced until it could be felt. “The body remembers,” he liked to remind Luke, and the same with stealing. No motion could be wasted; every action was necessary and lovely at the same time, specific and thoughtful. Luke waited while his father mixed salsa into scrambled eggs and measured the proper ratio of milk to coffee.
His mother came in and opened the fridge. “So other than–you know–how was the party?” she asked. “Sometimes,” she continued, “It’s just harder. You can’t always know the different factors. You might be distracted by a girl, or–”
“But you have to stay on course, Luke,” his father said.
His mother put a bowl of strawberries on the table and his father stirred them into his yogurt. Luke knew that his father had taken the strawberries from the farmer’s market by sliding them off the table as he was talking to the man who worked there. It was his father who had taught him right from wrong — lying was wrong, honesty was right; greed was wrong, simplicity was right. And yet when it came to the family, tradition was always right, in the same way that parents tell their children about Santa Claus, and it’s not thought of as wrong.
Before the next party, Luke was in the bathroom of the frat house, drying himself; it had been raining some before he arrived. He started taking paper towel after paper towel, as if each was a dollar bill or a wallet. He was so quick, so stealthy! They piled up beside the sink, dry and unused. He looked at his grey eyes in the mirror. He would be brave.
Mike was making the drink, a vat of vodka with lemon slices floating around in it. Every few minutes he returned to the cooler to pour and mix and stir. He was trying to impress the brunette who was gazing into her compact mirror.
“This is what it’s like at real southern parties,” he said. Of course, this wasn’t true. The people who gathered around cream-colored tablecloths in Charleston courtyards sipped mint juleps from glasses that clinked.
Allison Krueger had hair the color of honey and generous freckles on her nose, the cute kind. Luke watched her lips purse out to meet the white rim of her cup, and the way her hands danced as she spoke. He’d wasn’t sure at this point what she talking about, something about what had happened with her and some friends at the beach last summer. Every word was stretched and cushioned, and her ring with the flower jewel threw light all over the wall as she spoke.
Mike came in with the brunette then, and Allison took Luke’s hand and led him out of the kitchen. They started dancing. She was laughing and saying that she loved that song, and suddenly he’d forgotten her name already. It started with A, that he was sure about. She was holding the type of little purse that his mother had said to look out for because they usually carried loose bills. It was sparkly and silver and didn’t appeal to him the way her leather bag had, and he wondered if that would make it easier or harder for him to take it. After a few songs, the room became more crowded, until she had her cheek pressed up against his. Then she said she had to go to the bathroom, and he waited for her beside some guys who were throwing shrimp cocktail into each others’ mouths.
She came out of the bathroom with her arms crossed and said, “You really have to be on your toes in this place, you know what I mean?”
He thought for a fleeting second that she had found him out, but she cocked her head towards the bathroom and he assumed there had been some trouble with another girl.
Out on the porch, it was cooler. Citronella candles were out to keep the mosquitoes away, and it smelled of waxy citrus and of salt from the ocean. It would be so, so easy to take a few loose bills from that beaded purse she had. But as she draped her arms over his shoulders, he thought of Spanish moss hanging from the branches of oak trees on campus, frail and quiet. Her mouth tasted of sugar and vodka, and everything was cast over with a soft yellow light: the porch, her hair, her dress, which was actually white.
He didn’t know how long he’d been awake. Flakes of paint were falling from the ceiling like the wings of dead moths. Mike was not in the other bed. Luke wondered if he’d seen them and left, but more likely he was on a couch downstairs, the floor beside him sticky with beer.
She breathed in and out, in and out beside him. Her eye makeup had left dark smudges on his pillow. It would be a better time as any now, since everyone would be asleep. He got up to leave the room, then saw her silver purse. She wore braces in her driver’s license photo, pearls in her college ID. There were a few bills, a lipstick, a key, a picture that was yellowing at the edges. Her and some guy. Hey, he wanted to tell him, I have your girl now. But the guy continued to look back at him with the same confident expression, his arm around her loosely, and Luke wished he could have just a little of what he had.
Walking home with the purse in hand, he passed the other fraternity houses, their letters visible in the pale morning, great oaks sprawled overhead. He’d counted the bills; they added up to exactly one-hundred dollars. He’d counted them twice, just as his father had taught him. His home was in sight when he saw her from a block away, the white dress wrinkled, the blond wisps around her face. He made no move to hide her purse, but held it at his side, and she looked at it, not comprehending.
“You found it?” she said.
“I took it.”
When she looked at him, he could only open his mouth.
“If you needed money,” she said, “why didn’t you just tell me?”
Would she really have given him money if he’d asked? He didn’t know what to think. “It’s not about the money,” he found himself saying. “It’s just the way we’ve always done things.” He was surprised to hear he sounded like his father. What was repetition but trust in something, over and over again, as constant as the tides of the ocean? Yet even the ocean shifted and changed and blended.
His mother came out onto the porch then. She had in her hands something balled up and shiny: tin foil. She didn’t see him, but walked out onto the grass in her bare feet, around to the back of the house.
Alison still stood before him. He’d taken the ring because it was beautiful, like colored glass washed over by the ocean, smooth and bright. Someday, somehow, he would explain that, but not now. He took it out of his pocket and held it out to her, like a peace offering, and he thought of how his father would be waiting for him in the living room, sitting in a patch of morning sun.
Catherine Flora Con holds an MFA in fiction from Boston University, where she is the Creative Writing Program Coordinator. She is currently at work on a novel filled with music and mischief.