by Stephen Eoannou
I have trouble sleeping.
The headlines keep me awake: another bombing in Iraq; the Taliban resurging in Kandahar; more attacks in Fallujah.
My wife can’t sleep either.
“He’s at it again,” Maureen says, lying next to me.
“Bin Laden?” I ask, squeezing my quadriceps together, forcing blood into the muscles.
She props herself on an elbow. “Scotty,” she says. “From next door.”
I cock my ear toward the window and hear the cars rumbling in front of the house; they’re the same ones that show up every night loaded with kids: a Cutlass with a prom garter hanging from the rearview mirror, a blue Chevelle with growling cherry pipes, and a beat up Camaro, its quarter panels black primed.
They’re muscle cars, the type of car my brother Gregg and I have always loved.
“Every night, the same thing,” Maureen says.
Scotty and his friends race their engines before shutting them off, filling the night with exhaust that drifts through our bedroom window. Then I hear car doors banging and laughter. Scotty’s screen door slams and slams and slams until they’re all in the house, and then the music starts, the volume not quite loud enough to make out a specific song, but turned up just enough so we can hear the thumping bass.
“This is ridiculous,” she says.
Maureen kicks off the sheet, rolls out of bed, and shuts the window. I’ve asked her countless times to lift weights with me in the garage, but she always shakes her head and looks at me strangely. She thinks I’m crazy because I spend all my free time amongst the old tires, lawn mower, and gardening tools, pushing more weight than I should without a spotter.
The hard work is paying off; I’m in the best shape of my life, ready for whatever’s thrown at us.
“I’m sick of it,” she says, climbing back into bed. “The cars, the music, the yelling when they finally leave. And I know someone’s been peeing on the flowers. The roses reek of urine.”
“Come on, Mo. We used to party when we were kids.”
“Not every night. Enough is enough, Tom.” She pauses for a moment, and I imagine the gears grinding in her head. “Tomorrow I want you to talk to him.”
I lie very quietly, flexing my quads, trying to make out the music coming from Scotty’s house.
“Did you hear me, Tom? You need to talk to him.”
“I mean, this is crazy. I’m not getting any sleep, are you?”
“No,” I say, and think of insurgents, car bombs, and IED’s. “They’re just kids, Mo. Let them be kids as long as they can.”
“Explain things to him, Tom. You’re good at that,” she says, and I wish that was true.
She rolls away from me.
I hadn’t said more then hello to Scotty since he moved back into the house. Last summer, a drunk driver killed his mother. She died instantly; there was a newspaper article about it. Scotty went and lived with his father somewhere in the suburbs, but his dad had a new wife, a new life, and twin girls.
It was about this time that I built the gym in the garage. I made my own squat rack and preacher curl bench, and bought an Olympic weight set off a baby heading to Parris Island. I bolted a chin-up bar to the wall and began reading muscle magazines filled with bodybuilders so knotted with muscle they looked cartoonish. At least once a week I measured various parts of my body, and Maureen began whispering on the phone with her mother.
Scotty’s house remained empty next to us. The driveway and sidewalk went unshoveled and drifted over in the winter, and last spring the melted snow revealed all the unraked leaves from the previous fall. The grass grew ankle high before he showed up to mow it. Last week Scotty turned eighteen and moved back in the house.
The parties started soon after.
By this time I had transformed. My body is hard and muscled, tapering to a ‘V’ at my waist. I cut my hair shorter so my face looks wider and my neck thicker. The veins in my arms and across my chest stick out like fire hoses. Sometimes I feel like I can lift the whole house, Maureen and all, right off the damn foundation.
The next morning, I lie in bed, flexing various muscle groups, gauging my soreness from the previous day’s workout. I hear Maureen moving around in the bathroom, humming to herself. Then it becomes very quiet and a moment later the bathroom door slowly opens.
“Is this yours?” she asks, standing in the doorway.
I nod, recognizing the plastic bag immediately.
“What is all this stuff?” she asks, walking toward me and dumping the contents on the bed. “Anti-bacterial soap? A home waxing kit? Razors? You don’t plan on…Are you going to shave your legs?”
“And my chest and arms,” I answer. “I don’t think I have any on my back, do I?” I roll on my stomach.
“Why? Why would you do that, Tom?”
“All the bodybuilders shave,” I say, rolling back to face her. “I don’t want hair covering all the muscles and veins. I want them to see what they’re messing with.”
I get out of bed and start putting everything back in the bag.
“Who, Tom? Who’s them?”
“Don’t worry about them. I’ll take care of you.” I kiss her cheek as I walk past her to the bathroom.
As I shut the door, I hear her dialing.
I arrange all the items from the bag on the sink. Using a razor seems simpler than waxing, so I start with my arms, only nicking myself once near the elbow. When I finish, the skin feels smooth and the arm looks thicker, meatier, more intimidating. I had stopped at the wrist, but the contrast between the smooth arms and the hairy knuckles looks odd, so I shave the backs of my hands and fingers before starting on my thighs.
Maureen knocks on the bathroom door. “Tom? Are you all right?”
I look down at my legs. They’re pink and irritated; blood trickles from my left ankle to my heel.
“I’m fine, hon,” I say, lathering my chest.
“I’m going grocery shopping, okay?”
“Don’t forget to talk to Scotty, all right?”
“I’ll take care of it.” I remove a patch of chest hair with a single, clean stroke. “You can count on me.”
The Camaro is parked in the driveway, still pinging hot when I cut across my lawn towards Scotty’s house. The Chevy’s tires are worn smooth and a crack webs across the windshield; jumper cables lay tangled on the backseat. I walk to the back of the house and peer through the screen door. Beer cases are stacked by the refrigerator; an open pizza box sits on the counter, plastic garbage bags stuffed to bursting stand near the basement steps, waiting for someone to carry them out. From deep in the house I hear The Doors.
I knock, but no one answers, so I knock harder. The music stops, and footsteps pad up the basement stairs. Scotty’s friend, the owner of the Camaro, appears at the door. I’ve seen him around before. He wears a black leather vest over a t-shirt with Megadeath written in dripping red letters. His hair hangs long and straight to his shoulders.
His eyes grow wide when he sees me.
“Hey,” I reply. “Is Scotty around?”
“Let me check,” he says, and heads down the basement. “It’s the weird guy from next door,” I hear him say.
They murmur together before the kid comes back. “Scotty says you can come down.”
He unhooks the latch and leans away from me as I squeeze past. The smell of spilled beer and marijuana grows stronger as I head down the stairs; potato chips crunch under my feet. Posters — Janis, Jimi, Jim Morrison – hang on the basement walls; empty beer bottles and cans are scattered on the floor. Scotty sits shirtless in the middle of a sagging leather couch; his soft belly hangs over his Hawaiian shorts. The florescent ceiling lights reflect off his round John Lennon glasses.
“Mr. Mastoris,” he mumbles, then tilts his head towards a beanbag chair in the corner. “Have a seat. That’s CJ over there.”
I nod to the kid in the black vest, who sits on the bottom step; I sink in the beanbag.
“Can I get you something?” Scotty asks, and then looks at CJ. They start laughing, both stoned already.
I smile, shake my head, and point to the posters. “You need some pictures of survivors. Those guys didn’t make it.”
“Break on through, man,” CJ says. “One of these days me and Scotty are going to Paris and visit Morrison’s grave. You ever been there?”
I shake my head. “I’ve never been to France.”
“Where you been, besides Iraq?”
“CJ,” Scotty says, admonishing him.
“What? What’d I say?”
“I was never in Iraq either. I was never in the army.”
CJ glares at Scotty. “You said, man. You said he was.”
Scotty shrugs, his pupils like saucers behind his Lennon glasses.
“What made you think I was in Iraq?” I ask.
Scotty shifts on the couch, the leather squeaking under him. “I don’t know.”
“You can tell me. I won’t get mad.”
He laughs, shakes his head, and turns to his buddy for help.
“Well, you know,” CJ starts. “You got them war bumper stickers all over your car, and, you know, you kinda act weird.”
“Oh, man,” Scotty says. “Jeez.”
“He asked, didn’t he?” CJ turns to me. “Didn’t you ask?”
I look down at my legs, razor burned and scabbed where I’d cut myself. “What do I do that’s so weird?”
Scotty starts rocking back and forth.
“I don’t know,” CJ says, and then pauses a beat. “You talk to the newspaper.”
Scotty laughs as he rocks.
I smile. “I what?”
“You talk to the paper. Every night we see you. The paperboy throws it on your porch, you come out, sit on the front steps, and start reading. Then your hands shake, and we hear you talking to it. Sometimes you throw the pages down and walk around the yard, kicking at the grass. But you always go back and pick it up and do the same thing over and over again until you read the whole thing. Then you go into the garage and start lifting weights and groaning and tossing dumbbells around. It’s funny.”
“Yeah, it’s funny, Mr. M,” Scotty says. “No offense, but it’s real funny.”
They laugh together.
“That must look pretty weird,” I say, deciding I could press both of them over my head if I had to.
“So, you really weren’t in Iraq?” Scotty asks. “All the guys think you have a drawer full of medals and guns and stuff. They’re all afraid of you.”
Not afraid enough to stop peeing on Maureen’s roses, I think.
“No,” I say, instead. “I wasn’t there. My kid brother Gregg went. He wasn’t much older than you when he enlisted. I tried talking him out of it, but he had his mind made up. ” I turn to CJ. “He’d drool if he saw your Camaro.”
“He started working on cars when he was a kid. Yours would be a challenge to him. He’d want to fix it up, maybe put some big mag wheels on the back or a spoiler. You should see the before and after pictures of the GTO he restored.”
“Convertible or hard top?” CJ asks, leaning forward on that bottom step.
“Two-door hard top. Cardinal red.”
“Sweet.” CJ grins at me.
I nod. “He got lousy grades and was always in and out of trouble, but he was good with tools. That old Pontiac didn’t even turn over when he bought it. I told him he was throwing his money away, but Gregg never listened to me. He kept working on it and working on it. He even did all the body work himself. She runs a little rough, but she’s a beauty now.”
“You think he’ll look at the Camaro for me? You know, give me some ideas?”
“Can’t you just ask him? He might say yes.”
I shake my head.
“I’m a quick learner, dude. I just need someone to show me.”
Scotty rocks faster.
“He was killed by a roadside bomb outside of Basra. One of the guys in his unit, a kid named Tyler from Wyoming, survived the blast and wrote me. He said one minute they were riding, laughing about something, and then he heard a pop, then darkness. There was screaming, but he doesn’t think it was Gregg. Tyler was covered in blood and engine oil. Isn’t that weird? Engine oil? I never imagined that would happen, but I guess it makes sense. Gregg didn’t have any oil on him, which is ironic since he always seemed covered in grease when he was home and working on his cars. He was thrown six feet from the vehicle and their five hundred pound gun turret landed on him. Tyler thinks he died right away, probably didn’t even know what hit him. But who knows about a thing like that?”
I hear Scotty breathing hard, his nose whistling when he exhales.
“When?” he asks.
“About a year ago.”
“That’s when my mom died.”
“It happened right after.”
Scotty sags into the couch like he’s deflating. Maybe he pictures himself and CJ riding in an armored vehicle or on foot patrol in an Iraqi market. Then a pop, or possibly a louder explosion, the kind that can level vendor stalls and adjacent homes.
Maybe he imagines CJ blown in half or crushed by a fucking gun turret, and
realizes that if this happened they’d never again pass beer or joints to each other while their muscle car roars. Or maybe he’s just thinking about his mother and how he can fill her house with people and music every night, but the place still feels empty.
One thing is certain as I sit in that beanbag chair. I had told a real story, one they might read in the newspaper, and the rawness scares them. Both boys shift around, their eyes looking everywhere but at each other. I can tell they don’t like the helpless feeling that grips them. Like me, they want something solid to hang onto, something to make them feel safe and in control.
CJ and Scotty aren’t bad kids.
They’re just lost.
They need someone who’s been around and knows the score, someone to spend time with them and help them find their way. Who was more qualified than me to save these kids? This time, I’d think of all the right arguments. I’d drive home that one convincing point that would keep them riding on the right road.
This time, I’d get it right.
“Mr. Mastoris,” Scotty asks, as he reaches over and flips on the stereo. “Why did you come over today?”
As the music pushes me deeper and deeper into that beanbag chair, I flex my muscles, think of Maureen and these kids, but couldn’t, for the life of me, remember.
Stephen Eoannou received his MA in Creative Writing from Miami University and taught at both Ball State University and The College of Charleston. His short stories have appeared in The Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Verb, Westview, and The Red Herring. He is currently pursuing an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte.