I’m home to see my mom for the holidays. She’s better in a slow, worsening death. The doctors measure the rest of her life in months like a newborn, but it’s all fake optimism and probability. Her eyes fall into the shadows of her skull. Her thin skin rests directly on the bone. She has a transparent glow to her and she looks like a deep-sea fish who has never seen light, so she has to make her own. When I see the disrepair of the house, I feel guilty for moving away. My stepdad reminds me of my guilt. He screams it, even when he’s not yelling. I cry when I’m in my childhood bedroom that reminds me why I left. He was never the same after he was deployed. We never talk about the time he beat up a man in the parking who he thought was fucking my mom. He came home late that night, quiet, with blood spotted over his raw-bone knuckles.
When my mom says she wished she had some ginger ale, I volunteer without hesitation to go to the store. My stepdad, drunk and shouting at the Patriots game, seems ready to find another target. I count the days until I go back to the apartment that I share with two other friends from college and I hope they’re not as fucked up as I am from going home.
At the store, I see Saturn behind the meat counter. He’s ripping apart ribs with a cleaver, his white apron pinked with juice. We called him Saturn in high school because of his maroon Saturn ION. Rust bubbled and ate through the wheel well that has probably gotten worse since we graduated. When you sat in the backseat, your feet had to push away all the shit on the floor and somehow your feet were still on top of trash. Taco Bell wrappers and burned CDs in those thin, neon cases with Sharpie writing on the CD like “Graduation Mix Vol. 4” even though he never showed up to graduation and had to finish up his classes in summer school. He was always bumming for something. Money, a smoke, or a ride whenever his car was broke and he didn’t have the money to fix it. Probably like a lot of people in our class, I remembered him as someone else’s joke.
“Hey, Frankie, what’s good?” he says, seeing me, his greasy ponytail hanging through his black, unwashed, store logo baseball hat.
“Not much. Good to see you, Saturn.”
“You in town? Should have texted me.”
“Until New Year’s. Are you off soon?”
“Right now. Let me clock out.”
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Saturn. We grew up across the street from one another until my family moved into our smaller, shittier house. In high school, our friend groups ran parallel to one another. When our paths intersected, it was usually a good time. Ten minutes later, he exits the swinging doors next to the meat counter. His apron is gone and he’s wearing a shirt for some metal band. I buy the few items in my basket: some supplements and probiotics I’ve never heard of, some ginger ale (Canada Dry), and a container of Greek yogurt (more probiotics). I buy them for my mom, because I don’t want to lose her. Saturn is talking about a metal show he went to last week. He gives me updates on all the people still living in our town and people who have passed through recently, speaking about everyone as if they’re emergency contacts. He’s friendlier than I remember and lets me use his employee discount. Outside, the cold bites us and we stand on the sidewalk. The parking lot lights wash out the sky, even as the last light of the short, winter day pales through.
“Hey, want to grab a bite?” he says.
“Sure, where do you want to go?”
“The one still on Federal?”
“Yeah dummy, it hasn’t moved.”
He says he’s picking up his new car on Sunday and needs a ride. So, we get in my car and he tells me about his day, his week, his whole life since I saw him last. Not much has changed for him and that’s what energizes him. He pulls out a joint from his wallet and we pass it between us. We drive by the Wendy’s, the McDonald’s. They’ve all had their buildings torn down, rebuilt into something modular and modern. Clean, ugly, right angles with large windows, flat roofs, and mud-colored sides. They all look the same. The Burger King is nothing but rubble and construction equipment. We pull into the Taco Bell with its unchanged red-yellow-and-green logo, its clay, imitation-villa roof. A car idles in the drive-thru and we go inside. Saturn orders a Crunchwrap Supreme combo. I order a taco combo. We fill our sodas while we wait.
We sit in a booth with a busted overhead light. It puts Saturn in shadows. He sits in a bent half-crouch, with one knee up on the seat. He takes his work hat off, undoes his ponytail, and his stringy hair cascades flat down the sides of his head. Hot sauce packets spread out across the table. Thin, paper wrappers open like a blessing. He asks me about my mom and I tell him she’s sick. “That’s why I’m in town,” I say. Then, he asks me about my stepdad.
“A real piece of shit.”
“What else is new?” he says.
We split open the hot sauce packets and pile their drained, emptied sleeves to the side. Saturn licks his fingers as beef and sour cream fall onto the table and he pinches them into his mouth. I ask him what he’s up to tonight.
“There’s a party I’m gonna go to. Bunch of college freshman home on break.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Yeah, Carly Johnson’s younger bro.”
“Yeah, I have to go to make sure they know their place in the universe. At least, not when I’m buying them booze.”
He finishes his taco and takes a sip of his drink. “You remember how we read The Odyssey in Mrs. Freitag’s class?”
“Yeah, I remember,” I say, not remembering.
“I was thinking about this after watching a bunch of YouTube videos the other night. I think the problem with Odysseus was how he left home in the first place. The whole time he’s off at war, other guys are going after his wife. So, my man Odysseus has to come back with all his trauma and his solution is to murder them all. Fucked up, right? That’s why I keep going to these parties. Why I never left. I see all our old friends, passing by me at work, pretending like I don’t exist. There’s something sad about it. Like they’re ashamed to be here. But I’m not.”
He devours a corner of his Crunchwrap Supreme in a breathless bite. Cheese stretches like sinews from his hand to his mouth. He looks wild-eyed, searching for something like shame or uncertainty in me. “It’s like this Crunchwrap,” he says, food stuffed in his cheeks, “when it’s gone, it’s no longer supreme. It’s nothing. It’s digested. It becomes energy. Matter. Vapor.” He takes another bite and sets down the half-eaten Crunchwrap. “You can’t dethrone the king if he never leaves his throne,” he says, pointing both thumbs at himself.
I nod my head, understanding, but not quite following. We finish our meals and ball up our trash on the tray. We refill our sodas and stop in a packy to buy some cheap handles. In the car, we empty nips into our sodas. Cars line the street at the Johnson house. The sound of music and crowded bodies spill into the air. Carly isn’t home, but I still look for her. I talk to some short, bratty-voiced kid who was on my bus stop. He boasts about college like an expatriate. He sounds sullen, unimpressed. To him, there is nothing worse, quainter than being home.
Saturn walks around, with his liquor haul raised like spoils from battle. People cheer. They shower him with praise and inside jokes. They treat him like he’s beloved. A god. The bratty kid hands him some pooled, folded bills. They don’t call him Saturn, but Frank, his real name. Growing up, I saw everyone underestimate him, make him their joke, like they were preserving some royal hierarchy. Here’s the king. The queen. Here’s the general. Here’s the jester. But how many of us are sad and unsatisfied now? When we think the world has nothing to offer us, we bring our unhappiness wherever we go. I admire Craig for his life, how he can build satisfaction around himself like a nest. Do I misunderstand how the world works or fail to see the whole picture? Or maybe that’s just not who I am.
When I get back home, there’s empty beer cans piled by the sink. Some stand upright. One is rolled on its side. My stepdad is passed out, face down in bed. The lights are off except the glow of the TV in the living room. Mom sits on the couch. The cast is waving goodbye on SNL. Fake snow falls above them as the credits roll. I sit next to her with the bag of groceries. She asks for a ginger ale and I pull out two cans, cold from sitting in my car all night. An infomercial starts for some adhesive repair goop. I remember in high school how we used to watch late night TV together when my step dad was away, how we laughed retelling jokes from the show the next day. I tell her I love her and she says in her sweet, eternal voice that she loves me too.
Hannah Gregory is a trans, queer writer with work published/forthcoming in The Normal School, Passages North, X-R-A-Y, and Okay Donkey. She’s partial towards chalupas, skeptical of chihuahuas, and lives with her wife and dog (not a chihuahua) in Western Massachusetts. Twitter: @hannah_birds