Rumpus Original Fiction: The Barbecue

By

Kirby was always spreading his arms out wide and resting them on my cubicle wall like it was a cross, and asking me why everyone cared about the horseshoe crabs dying. He didn’t know what to do with his hair now that white supremacists had claimed the cut that looked best on him. It was the Fourth of July and kids were pelting small paper packets of explosive powder at the sidewalk outside the office. Schools and banks were closed, but we were a startup—we were freeing ourselves from the musty hooks of our dads’ holiday schedules. Janine had brought in a battery-powered handheld fan that flashed red, white, and blue while it whirred, and the LEDs bounced across the ceiling and rained down on our bent heads. Kirby spread himself above me and said my name.

He said, “April. My girl friend—not my girlfriend, my girl friend, you see—she says I only date birdlike women. I don’t think that’s a problem. Do you?”

I was wearing a size American Apparel large, which meant that I was a shapeshifter capable of many sizes, with the exception of bird. If I told Kirby that I thought his preference for tiny women wasn’t weird, I was admitting that I, too, found myself unfuckable. If I told him that yeah, he should probably expand his horizons, he would think I was being resentful because I was in love with him. Was he asking if I was in love with him? If he was, then he was also expressing that it would never happen. I remembered something a friend had told me once, late at night: if you were too obsessed with becoming a bird, you went to a hospital and learned how to eat all over again, like a baby. They wouldn’t free you until your parents took away your treadmill. I looked down at my flats, which were the same shiny black as the linoleum floor in the office kitchen. I coughed and printed a spreadsheet.

Kirby was the best data manager on our team, mostly because of his ability to not care about horseshoe crabs, or to love the future more than the past. He outsourced his anxiety: he said that you could put anything in a recycling bin, because that way, you were giving jobs to whoever sorts our stuff at the plant. Kirby enjoyed vocally supporting Management and justifying its many policies, as if there were zealous detractors afoot, even though none of our coworkers liked us enough to complain to us.

Before I fell asleep at night I would go over my hours at the office—collating pages, or pitching ideas during our allegedly casual weekly meetings, which Management referred to in emails as “rap squats”—and my actions struck me as random and bizarre, like I was playing a game show in another language. I completed the necessary tasks, but I couldn’t defend my actions to anyone. I wanted the mystery prize. I was practically the worst team member, except Mason, who tried to rewrite the data input systems every few months and who sent out longwinded office-wide emails asking us to test out his elaborate, non-intuitive codes.

“Team” was a term from Corporate. We didn’t actually do anything together. We performed identical, individual duties on the same timeline, like synchronized swimmers. We brought small plants into our cubicles and ate plastic tubs of chicken salad from the Safeway across the street. We sold data; we valued freedom over privacy. At my desk, numbers sifted from one folder to the next, numbers on an equal plane—birthdates and latitudinal points, site hits and spending preferences. From where I sat, no one piece of it was more or less useful than any other; it was all information.

 

Last Fourth of July I had gotten stoned by myself and biked to the 99-Cent store. I wandered the aisles, leisurely putting off-brand products into my Barney-colored shopping cart and taking them out again in other places. I had marveled at how these products seemed to belong in the movie parody of my life: they looked so similar to the name-brand thing in normal supermarkets, but the packaging was just a little bit off.

I spent thirty percent of my workday processing numbers, thirty percent online shopping, and thirty percent on a health and wellness blog run by the kind of woman who was endlessly ill with Candida and cramps and vampiric energy sucking frenemies, a woman who wanted you to chew your smoothies. I, too, knew I was deficient in something, but it was hard to pinpoint what—magnesium, maybe, or vitamin D. My teeth were lightly serrated at the tips: a feminine lack of calcium. I also knew I was excessive in other things. Flesh, mostly. Soft acne scars—I had a face like the insides of a loaf of bread. I knew that displacement into one part of the body is illness. Thus, wellness must be cohesion, the body as whole. Sometimes I wanted to be well for noble reasons, like performing better at work, or surviving the apocalypse. When I biked home, I liked to mentally note the locations of edible plants I passed—mostly mustard—in case I ever needed to eat them.

“I’m going to a barbecue tonight,” said Kirby. He drummed his fingertips on my cubicle wall. “What are you doing?”

I was going to watch TED talks and then masturbate. In my apartment, the air was always dark pink. I was expecting packages from Amazon—a setup for a standing desk that I hadn’t bought yet. I was an avid and skilled consumer of self-improvement talismans, able to consume hours pulling wheat crackers through a tub of spicy hummus and not even trying to keep my shoulders back while I scoured the Internet for deals.

“I have to work,” I said, and Kirby craned his head to look at my screen, which happened to be on the health blog. It was an article about testing one’s stool for adequate flora. I clicked out of the browser, but Kirby was already ducking back into his own cubicle. I wanted to say something to make my lie better, or at least more cool-sounding, but I couldn’t think of anything. Then Kirby was in the hole that was supposed to be like my doorway. He handed me a flat rectangle of aluminum foil. I unwrapped it and inside was a strip of paper, about the dimensions of a bookmark, studded with gummy stamps.

“It’s acid,” said Kirby. It occurred to me that maybe he could tell that I vaped pot in the office bathroom sometimes. Could everyone tell? He was talking about productivity and micro-dosing, and I thought about how it must feel to be him, uncaring and Zen, like a monk on a mountain, always able to find his breath. I wanted to know.

 

The idea of waiting in my cubicle for Kirby to take me to the barbecue made my stomach burn with shame, so I waited outside by the bike racks, like a pervert. When we got off work, the kids were gone and the air was muggy and lukewarm, like the whole world had just breathed out at the same time. The whole world had garbage breath. I put a square of acid on my tongue and let it dissolve, wondering if I would feel anything, if I could be kinder or better.

Kirby appeared in wavy parts through the coated glass doors at the front of the building. I pretended to struggle with my bike lock, like I had been doing that the whole time. He scrunched his nose at my bike.

“It might not fit in my friend’s car,” he said.

I watched him text someone until a pine-green Volvo pulled up to the curb. I popped the hatchback and attempted to fold up my bike. I was taking too long, but the more embarrassed I became, the more the bike resisted. I wanted it to break.

Tim had a tan and a shaved head and nondescript wire-frame glasses. He was Kirby’s friend from Texas, and he had driven overnight to get here, so this was special.

“Why’d you come out?” I asked Tim.

Tim turned his head around to look at me and the car swerved.

“I can’t drive to see my oldest friend?” His expression was a challenge.

I looked at Kirby through the rearview mirror. His face was wide and flat like an open napkin. I couldn’t tell if he knew he was looking at me.

We had to get beer before the barbecue, but there was no parking near the bodega Kirby liked, so we parked half a mile away and walked.

“I don’t want it to get stolen,” I explained to nobody as I unloaded my bike. Kirby and Tim were talking about someone they had both dated in Texas. I thought about the vastness of the universe, and the distance between my American-Apparel-size-large breasts and the jumbo thumbprint of Kirby’s chest bowl. It made me think of a video I’d seen in college. It was a physics demonstration: the universe was a bed sheet—a king-sized one—and the sun a big weight in the middle of fabric, the size of a bowling ball, and the earth was smaller than a shot pellet, and as it approached the sun, it began to circle it. The actual earth circles the actual sun infinitely, I learned, because infinite sheets veil in all directions. It felt so safe, knowing we were being pulled like that. I’d sat in the back of class, failing, wanting to crawl under the sheet on the screen—a plane of 300-count cotton, glacial white.

 

What are you?” Tim was talking to the cashier.

She looked up from ringing up his 30-rack. She had uncrossed one arm from her chest to jab halfheartedly at the cash register, and the other arm was still wrapped around her body.

“Sorry?” she said.

“I trained in Korea. For the army?” He said it the way famous people say their names when they show up for dinner reservations. Tim’s eyes were glassy and so pale that when they were lit up with purpose, it was like looking inside an empty fridge.

“We have a minimum,” she said when Tim held out a credit card. Tim calmly set the card on the counter and opened the billfold part of his wallet. Even from next to the snack cakes, I could see that his wallet was empty, but he stared into it for a full thirty seconds. Kirby and I witnessed this quietly. Then, he looked back up at her.

“Okay,” he said. He picked up another 30-rack from a nearby display and loaded it onto the counter. Then he picked up another one. “Does this meet the minimum?” He laughed. The cashier nodded, but Tim kept loading up 30-racks.

“We can’t carry them all,” said Kirby.

“She thinks I can’t afford them,” said Tim. This was his holiday.

“Thanks for your service,” said the cashier when we left.

 

Because we were each carrying a couple 30-racks, we had to walk very slowly. Tim was elated.

“At training, they were all whores,” Tim said. “They’re whores here, too. But they think they know better.”

One of Kirby’s cases slipped away and tumbled across the sidewalk to rest against a bus haven. None of us could pick it up without dropping the rest of our beers, so we left it and kept walking. Tim punched the side of a box, pulled a can from the dark interior, and struggled to open it. A bus whistled by and I wondered what we looked like to the people inside, even though I knew the answer. We looked like a blur, a smear on a building wall, like nothing.

“Think I’m stupid. I know I’m not rich. But I have dignity.” Tim wouldn’t stop muttering. He asked me if I felt safe in this city. I looked around and saw grids of stucco apartment complexes designed so all the windows looked in on one another, signs offering cash for beater cars and the safe return of small dogs. A classic rock song leaked into the street from somewhere above us, soft and staticky, like sonic velour. Tim seemed like the sort of guy who felt safer when he was being watched, and who assumed I was the same way. I didn’t mind the CCTVs that flocked most buildings, but I became anxious when a single car idled outside my apartment. Honestly, security seemed beyond the point; it was more important to feel unbound. I wondered whether Tim was asking me if I was a whore. I felt a wingbeat of flattery, and then I was very angry with myself. I lied and told him I did feel safe, because I had a dog.

We walked a long time, looking at street trash and avoiding pedestrians, and then Tim was jamming a key into the car door but it wouldn’t turn. Kirby muttered something about whether it was the right key, and Tim glared at him stonily.

“Were you in any specific part of the army?” I asked. It was an embarrassing question, but I wanted to give Tim the opportunity to explain something to me, and also, I genuinely didn’t know how it worked.

“All of them,” said Tim. He was sorting through his keys, holding them one at a time up to the setting sun. “In training. I actually left like a week ago.” He didn’t get kicked out, Tim emphasized. They just couldn’t handle him. I didn’t know who he meant when he said “they.” The beer was stacked like a short fortress around Tim and Kirby, and I stood outside, picking at the grip on my bike handles.

Kirby stepped back and Tim muttered, “Everything is fucked. It’s fucked.”

He jerked the door handle over and over again, a weak and furious toll that didn’t end.

 

One time, years ago, my dad pulled me aside and told me I was his favorite. He’d been drinking PBR mixed with Sprite all through dinner. He told me how afraid he was of losing his mind. My dad told me that I was his favorite because he knew I could do it, meaning I could put him down—euthanize him—when he inevitably went crazy. I’d nodded, like a wimp, and thought, Put him down where? Like I could ever just let anything go. I pictured the 30-rack that Kirby had abandoned, the cardboard rotting away and the metal that would just stay there forever, on top of all the other permanent things, the cement and the piping crammed into the earth. Where did the dirt go when they cleared the city for pipes? I was so thirsty, but I couldn’t empty a can, because I couldn’t put it anywhere. I couldn’t get the taste of the city out of my mouth.

“I think I’d like to bike,” I said, quietly, to Kirby.

Kirby looked at Tim and then back at me. He looked tired and very sad. “We’re going to a barbecue,” he said.

I felt heat sick. It’s okay, I thought, and, He wasn’t even really in the army.

“I know,” I said.

“What’s the problem?” said Tim.

When someone started yelling, it wasn’t me, which made me think it must have been Kirby. But it was another man, running down the street. This new guy’s girlfriend trailed behind him, unconcerned in a way that made me think he must be good at confrontation.

“The fuck are you doing to my car?” The guy was waving his hands, open-palmed, at the Volvo, like he was fanning a flame.

Tim swayed, jangled his keys, and then laced them between his knuckles.

“This is my car. Fuck off.” It occurred to me that maybe we’d parked somewhere else.

They were swelling up, like water bubbling over a glass, held together only by magic and surface tension. Kirby stepped away. I followed him, sleazily, I thought, and we kept walking, past the girlfriend, her eyes heavy and bored as she drifted toward the screaming men next to the Volvo, ash from her cigarette floating towards us on a light breeze.

 

Kirby cradled one 30-rack in his arms and I balanced another on my handlebars, and together we walked slowly, arguing over whether it was a problem that I was always asked to clean up after office parties. I followed him to a residential neighborhood, and then to an empty lot on a small hill and up the hill via an empty drainage ditch, a cement chevron cut at a steep angle. I took off my flats and walked up the mountain barefoot. It was where he’d gone to make out in high school, he said. He could have made up an excuse for taking me there—something about seeing fireworks from the little league fields below us—but he didn’t bother. We wouldn’t have seen them anyway; the sunset was barely pulsing out color. I looked out over a brown haze of light pollution and regular pollution. Below us was a Milky Way of backyard bonfires, windows, and porch lights, like from the mountain, the world was upside-down.

“Loyalty is really important to me,” said Kirby. I nodded. He was sitting on a rock. I didn’t know where to sit, so I stood in front of him and drank one beer, and then two. The house lights rolled out in their grid and then stopped in one scraggly line at the dark ocean. Up close, the beach was disgusting and tragic. A million tiny pieces of plastic were heaped on the shore like confetti from a hundred parades, or like the real sand on the beach threw up. I’d heard there was algae in the water that makes dogs sick.

“Do you believe in heaven?” I asked.

Kirby laughed. “Yeah, it is nice up here,” he said, and then I knew he didn’t.

We made out, and a knot of hatred tightened inside of me. Everyone else was eating hot dogs. The acid hadn’t worked. Kirby was a watery kisser and I wondered whether he was like that with everyone, and whether that made him better or worse at giving head.

“I like to pull hair,” Kirby said. He reminded me of the instruction cards that come with potted plants. He was pushing down my shoulders, like I could fold backwards into a state of repose that way. Everything smelled smoky and I became very afraid of a Bambi situation. It was just barbecues. It was just families having fun. I wished I were down the mountain, but I didn’t even have plans for when I got there.

“Let’s go somewhere less dusty,” I said.

 

The only way down was the drainage ditch, which Kirby skated down standing up. I slid down on my butt, unsure. I would let Kirby finger me, maybe next to that lamppost. I would bike home while the hot night made the streets smell like drunk magnolia. I would make a pot of coffee and go online and float to a plane of capability.

I lost control, a little, thinking about these things, and as I skidded to the sidewalk I gave Kirby a little push, my knee to his calf. He jolted forward, was swallowed, for a second, by the night. I stood up slowly and I felt very free. I thought about the possibility of being someone who hated who she was dating. I’d never done that before; I was a lap dog, underproductive, nonspecifically sick. Fireworks boomed somewhere far away, invisible to me, in bursts of strange hot sound.

“Kirby?” I said, stepping forward. Kirby was crumpled on the ground. I slid down after him and reached out my hand.

“Don’t touch me,” he snarled, his face curled in on itself. His shoe was so small, suddenly, his foot and ankle bulging out of it and straining the laces into a state of undoneness. I could smell dirt on him, or maybe it was me.

 

I really started tripping on the way to the hospital. The whole night became hyper clear—I could see how each slab of concrete was separate from the next one, perfect squares that rose up to meet me, a ladder to something, while we idled at a stoplight. I felt, for the first time, like I owned the places I passed through. It occurred to me that Kirby felt that way all the time.

Kirby was leaning against the opposite window, facing me, his giant foot in my lap like a gift.

“The whole leg is swollen,” he told our Uber driver. Of course Kirby would be overtly ailing, easily diagnosed. I felt a jealous rash creeping up my neck.

 

They were worried about a blood clot above the thigh, and consequentially, a pulmonary embolism. A nurse rushed him into the depths of the hospital as soon as he explained his pain. I dicked around the waiting room, wondering if I could leave. I didn’t want to see any firecracker injuries. A woman with bruises on her cheek and under her eye and on her jawline walked out of the bathroom when I was coming in, and she was really polite. Two shoeless toddlers helped each other pee in a stall with an open door.

Kirby texted me a photo of an X-ray of his broken foot from whatever sterile place they had taken him away to. Letters waved at me up and down on my phone keyboard. I was okay, though; I was using muscle memory. I reverse image searched the photo to see if it was really his, but I couldn’t tell, they all looked the same to me. The air was heavily conditioned, a clean cold like little snakebites up and down my legs. Time stretched infinitely forward.

“Wait for me,” Kirby texted, and I started to panic. “Please.” We were so far apart. Up close, he was boring, and if I could see that, then he could see me. I wished, briefly, that he were dead. And what of my Amazon packages? My edges were blurry; when I breathed in and my stomach and chest expanded I could feel particles of myself drifting into the room around me, little microscopic bits of me flaking into the room like dandruff from my soul. I looked again at the image search: thousands of anonymous foot bones, splayed side by side, white arrows pointing at things. The data was overwhelming. I couldn’t tell, anymore, what was useful and what was remainder.

When I stepped up to the front desk, the emergency nurse looked at me like she was trying to see how fucked up I was, how much I needed her.

“Something smells really good,” I said.

“Maybe it’s my hair,” she said. She was so good at her job.

“Probably,” I said, without getting closer, in case I was being weird. “I’m looking for a patient.” I gave her Kirby’s name and a general description, including how he talked like he was always trying to teach you something. I didn’t say that I hated that about him, because he was sick. The nurse listened and then, not unkindly, pointed at a chair.

A corner TV in the waiting room played a soundless baking show. A pair of hands—adult hands, with short clean nails—smoothed egg white over violets, dusted the petals with sugar, and lay them out to crystallize into bruise-colored dabs. The perverse thing was that preservation is a form of death. Batter folded in on itself in geologically banded layers.

Whenever I breathed in, I would hold my breath for a second longer than usual, and then my body would take over and everything would contract as I breathed out, little bits snapping back into place as I became whole again. I loved this place, where everyone was an emergency. I could stay in the waiting room forever, watching people hurt in different ways, their pain transmuting into charts, into solvable problems.

Onscreen, the chef’s sponge was collapsing. As if disaster could be traced to forgetting, twenty minutes earlier, a teaspoon of baking soda. But it could: beneath every warm product were rules and measurement, the beatific belief that there was a recipe for how to provide. That if you sacrificed in the same way every time, you could reap the same benefits, too. The thought cut through the waiting room like a shaft of light. I wanted to give all of myself, to be a beautiful cake bird, free.

“Was it the fight? Did he get hurt in the fight?” I looked up, and there was Tim. He was clutching his phone, the same foot photo on the screen, and a sweaty can of beer from the 30-rack at his feet. It took me a minute to remember that there had been an altercation, that Kirby and I had left Tim in the street next to someone else’s Volvo. Tim seemed the same. I wanted to ask how he’d found his car, how the barbecue was. I took a beer from him and looked around the waiting room. No one cared. Bubbles fizzed out the top and over my hands, sticky and plenty. It struck me that maybe Tim didn’t go to any parties while we were gone; that he was at the hospital with me on the Fourth of July because no one from training was his friend.

“I’m sorry,” I said, surprised by how despondent I sounded. I didn’t actually feel anything besides a little tingly. “I just gave him a little push.”

“I know,” said Tim, not like in a way that said he was actually there, but in a way that said he related. Tim leaned back and looked at the TV with me. “Do you know why the bald eagle is our national symbol?”

“Why?” I hoped it was a joke.

Tim didn’t answer. A nurse was above us, and then Tim was up, running away with her. He was at the double doors when he realized I wasn’t.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said.

The nurse said something else and Tim said my name again, and it sounded like a car door handle jerking around fruitlessly in the night, or like a bottle rocket writing letters in smoke in the sky. I wasn’t afraid of the end of the world, I thought; I was afraid of after. The beginning credits of a new episode started on top of the end credits of the old one. I couldn’t get up. I had to see what happened.

***

Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.


Aiden Arata is a Gemini INFP whose work has appeared in BOMB, MASK, Hobart, Potluck, and Shabby Doll House, among others. She is also the author of the poetry chapbook Object of Art (Ghost City Press, 2017). She lives in Los Angeles, and on the Internet at @aidenarata. More from this author →