Prize

By Elle Nash

Short Story

Meg walked home from work through the shortcut of her apartment complex and saw a fire engine out front of building two, where Jodi lived. Jodi was older and had a habit of standing outside with her neighbor Blake, who sold weed to everyone in the complex. Meg loved to talk to Jodi because she knew all of the news of the neighborhood and Meg was missing it. Jodi had beautiful, sun-stained blonde long hair, and tanned, wrinkled skin. She wore glasses. She offered to dye Meg’s brown hair to a better shade of brown. Often her eyes were red and she had a soft, spacey look to her. She could remember everything there was to know about what happened in buildings two, three, and four on their end of the complex.

The lights flashed on the fire engine. There was no noise. Meg walked past it and put her hands to her ears, her body tensed, ready for the sirens to wail. Two paramedics carried a yellow gurney up the wrought iron stairs and the desire to spectate rose within her. Her father once called it rubbernecking, and he called it rude, so she tried to suppress her urges. Jodi stood outside her apartment with Bella, a mutt with long, black fur. Meg had a dog, too, a yellow lab named Cheese. She’d gotten Cheese the same year she dropped out of college during her sophomore year. A dog was a good excuse to be outside. Bella wandered, leashless, around the apartment grounds, as Jodi stood watching, a hand on her hip. Meg stopped and stood with her.

“What’s going on?” Meg asked.

“It’s the old man,” Jodi said.

Blake told Jodi the old man was always falling down. He could hear him cursing and falling above Blake’s bedroom. Blake told Jodi that the last time he had a girl over, they could hear the old man cursing in the middle of the night. It was annoying. He said it ruined the mood. Jodi said the girl was no good for him, so it was probably for the best.

They spent a few minutes speculating on the cause of death. Meg tried, in her mind, to remember what the old man looked like. When she first moved in, she’d stand in the middle of the street smoking cigarettes with Blake and Jodi and her boyfriend, Ben, watching the sky turn orange and then pink and then violet. All of them, except for the old man, left their doors open in the summer heat, box fans blazing in the windows. None of their porch lights worked except for the old man’s. The old man turned on the porch light at nine P.M every night, rendering all of them blind. Then he’d step outside, a silhouette of him outlined in orange din, and ask Blake for a cigarette. Blake would tell the old man to shut the fuck up, and to turn off his porch light before he went up there and turned it off for him. The old man would yell back, “I’ll do whatever I damn well please in this country of mine, of which I fought in a war I never asked to join, fought for you to have the privilege of smoking that damn cigarette in the street.”

Blake would oblige and give him one. He always obliged, because the man was old, and what was he going to do. He wasn’t going to turn away the old man. Just like he wasn’t going to do anything about the porch light.

Now, the old man’s door was open. It was day time, so the porch light couldn’t blind them. But the old man wasn’t on the patio. Meg still couldn’t remember what he looked like. They heard men inside the apartment. She wondered how long it would take before they brought him outside, and got bored of waiting. Blake suggested they go inside, to his apartment, to smoke some weed.

The smell of human waste and humidity collected in the carpets. She tried to ignore the dead roaches in the corners of his apartment, near the plastic pucks of poison strewn about. She had wondered what would happen if she left the roaches in her own apartment to pile up and now she knew.

Meg was always looking through the glass at other things she could have. Living on the fantasy of something else instead of enjoying her life. But she wasn’t sure what there was to enjoy. She had spent much of her life living with angry men, her father was angry, and now she was living with an angry man. It was expected, part of a dynasty. There are not many women who can be with angry men, Meg thought. It wasn’t bad. There was something she could see in him that no one else saw, like tectonic plates slipping beneath each other. He never turned his anger on her, just as her father had never turned his anger on Meg or her mother. It seemed that Meg’s purpose on earth, just as her mother’s purpose on earth had been, was to witness this man’s anger and somehow sieve it back into the world.

Blake sat at his couch and pulled up the false top of his coffee table which revealed several glass jars of weed. Blake had lived mostly alone for as long as they’d lived in the complex. A girl would show up, move in, and a few weeks later she would be gone. Jodi seemed pleased about these events when they happened. She cut his hair and trimmed his beard once a month, and he cooked dinner for her often. Her children, all girls, were already grown and gone. He took a glass jar labeled “green crack” and picked a nugget out of it and then prepared it for them to smoke. Meg went to use Blake’s bathroom through his bedroom, which had holes the size of fists peppered into the drywall.

They each took turns passing the glass pipe around. Meg had the thought that she should go home and let Ben know where she was. Even though he was never angry with her, she worried one day he would be. She took a hit from the pipe and thought about how if they spent too long inside Blake’s they’d miss the firemen pulling the old man’s body out of the apartment, feet first. Meg pictured the gurney, and the careful steps of the person walking backwards down each step, holding up what was once a man, now simply an object.

Jodi said, “I guess his son will probably be showing up to take care of all the man’s belongings.”

Blake said, “I didn’t even know he had a son.”

Jodi said, “Oh yes. And the man’s a hoarder. Imagine they’ll be sorting through lots.”

Meg told Ben of news of the old man when she got home and he said, “That’s the problem with people today, nonchalantly dealing with death,” and Meg agreed. He said, “Some funeral for a war hero,” and she agreed again. “We should burn the apartment down,” Meg said. “A funeral pyre.” Instead, they went back over to Blake’s and got high. In the night, his hand searched for her skin like a lighthouse on the shore. The tenderness of his warm palm against her body was something secret and special.

Later in the week, someone threw the old man’s belongings out of the bedroom window from the second story into a dumpster below. Newspapers, chairs, stuffed animals, broken lamps, computer monitors, CD cases, and stacks of soiled looking papers. A few neighbors came by to peruse the furniture that had survived the fall. Meg imagined herself dead and all the contents of her home thrown in the trash, people digging through it. Each person who picked out an item smiling with it in their hands, as if winning a prize of her.

The urine smell hit Meg’s nose each time she walked past the dumpster. Everything smelled like urine now. She went home, put up her things, said hello to Ben, and got Cheese ready to walk. Ben told her of all the terrible things happening in the world. All of the people dying, the genocide, famine, political corruption. He said, “What’s the point in ever going to Paris if there’s bullet proof glass around the Eiffel Tower!”

Meg listened to Ben and told Cheese to sit. Cheese listened to Meg. She put his collar on and then his leash and put a plastic shopping bag in her back pocket, and Cheese danced around her. Ben continued on his tirade. She stood politely at the door, Cheese sniffing around, and waited for a pause in the conversation.

“I’m listening to you,” she said. “But I’ll be right back.”

She felt the heaviness of Ben’s anger on her like an old coat. But when she left the apartment, she took the coat off.

The dog trotted along side her as she walked up the street. The night was purple and loud with summer and the moon was just peeking through some of the trees. The breeze was freeing. Bella was out wandering the neighborhood, and Cheese pulled on his leash and whined a little as Bella followed behind them. Meg stopped and examined an old chaise on the curb, and considered for a second dragging it back to her apartment before someone else did. Cheese sniffed at the chaise. Meg felt her desire to own this new thing that had once belonged to someone else, that perhaps she did not have enough things, and needed more of them. She noticed a few brown stains on the tan cloth upholstery and wondered if it had belonged to the old man. Cheese began to lift his leg and she pulled the him away so he’d pee on something else. The dog and Meg walked past Jodi’s open door, and Blake’s open door. She looked inside as she passed them, but she didn’t see anybody. They walked past the dumpster where everything smelled like urine. They walked past where the fire engine had parked, where Meg had tensed her body and plugged her ears, waiting for something to happen.

Elle Nash is the author of the novel Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books), which was featured in the 2018 June Reading Room of Oprah Magazine and hailed by Publishers Weekly as a ‘complex, impressive exploration of obsession and desire.’ Her short stories and essays appear in Guernica, Literary Hub, The Fanzine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, New York Tyrant and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart. She tweets at @saderotica.

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