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I’d Like to Buy a Vowel by Thomas Kearnes

I won’t lie. I thought about taking it, slipping it into my gym shorts. Like I’d told Serena earlier that day, the poor man was losing his mind. I hadn’t told her the worst of it; Serena was not on friendly terms with absolute truths. His credit card lay facedown in the towel cabinet above the toilet, the card surrounded by washcloths, denture cream and lotions. A Visa, one with an obnoxious “personalized” design: an aquarium filled with ghost-bright fish, motionless as if suspended by wire.
     “Clive, this belong to you?”
     “What you got?”
     “It’s a credit card. I think it’s yours.”
     “Well, doggone.” He rose from his seat in the kitchen, hands pressed against the tabletop for leverage. “Things come and go like the breeze up in here.”
     I smiled and handed it to him. “Vanna would’ve gone disco dancing if she’d found it.”
     Clive chuckled. “Vanna be shady.”
     “She ain’t the mastermind. It’s that faggot Pat Sajak. He’s behind it all.”
     “I know that be right.”
     “What you trying to buy in the bathroom?”
     “Maybe I need a vowel.”
     I laughed, tossing my head. He didn’t know the first thing about me, not the first thing after four months. “Just make sure you don’t go bankrupt.”
     Clive couldn’t make it to the gas station on his own. The painkillers reduced his gait to a toddler shuffle; the sleeping pills knocked him out before he learned which castaway got snuffed on “Survivor.” Our house manager, Wayne, apologized constantly for the urine Clive splattered around the toilet. Helpless, that’s the word. I’d expected my involuntary stay in a group home might expose me to ex-convicts, the deranged, the retarded—those rightly abandoned by society, but never those still possessing a flicker of vitality.
     A month before Clive’s Visa appeared in the bathroom like a vision of the Virgin Mary in a runny waffle, he flagged me down on my way to the gas station. Wayne didn’t allow us to roam the neighborhood of prefab houses; what went on here was no business of theirs, and what went on out there was none of ours. Trapped, that’s the word. Clive handed me his credit card with a trembling hand, asked for a twelve-pack of Dr. Pepper and a slice of pound cake.
     “How will I know it’s fresh?” I asked.
     “People from these parts take pride in those things. No joke.”
     , I saw an opportunity. Already, it shimmered like the wet cunt of a buddy’s girlfriend. “Anything else?”
     “You gone need my PIN number.”
     The half-mile to the gas station gave me time to rationalize things. Every time I stumbled on the grassy incline sloping from the edge of the highway to a ditch filled with stagnant rainwater, I convinced myself this was my tip: a pack of menthol Marlboros, of course. Every time a sports car zipped past, horn blaring, I reminded myself Clive had offered me no compensation. Had he not sent me on this errand, however, I’d have returned to the house empty-handed. Walking for its own sake was forbidden; Wayne was craftier than most blacks I’d met, including Clive.
     At the counter with the soda and pound cake, I envisioned Clive poring over his Visa bill, feebly asking his wife on the phone to write a check for whatever balance appeared at the bottom of the statement. I asked the Indian woman for two packs—not because I believed he owed me, at least not two. I asked because I wanted them, the same reason you ask a girl to suck you off. Behind me, a black woman in a tank top stamped with sexy yanked her son’s arm while he whined for beef jerky. Further back, a Latino couple bickered over which brand of beer was the best bargain. I was the only white man in the store; I felt like the only white man in the world. After forging Clive’s name on the receipt, I bolted into the night. One more thing Serena didn’t need to know.
     “I forgot the receipt,” I told Clive as he unwrapped the pound cake. He’d been right; its freshness was apparent the moment he sank his thick, clumsy fingers into the bread.
     “You good.”
     “I walk down every day after the van drops us off.”
     “That right?”
     “It’s good to have a purpose in life,” I said.
     “I know that be right.”
     I wasn’t a fool. Even Clive (or his wife) would find too many unexplained charges on his bill suspicious. Since my first excursion with his card, I’d padded the total with two packs of Marlboros only a half-dozen times. Each day Clive sent me, my heart fluttered like moths orbiting a floodlight, mind racing with how far his Visa might take Serena and me—skinny-dipping in the south of France, fucking beneath the stars on an Irish hillside, hunting for homes in Malibu. These fantasies provided more delight than any cigarette, spare for my first each morning.
     Along with our housemates, Clive and I watched “Wheel of Fortune” every night after the weathergirl with the fake tits and the sportscaster with the lisp. Vanna and Sajak paraded onto the stage like a prom couple. Their smiles made promises none of us believed. Whores, that’s the word. The producers made sure we knew the show was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary; a fanfare of fonts and applause preceded Vanna and Sajak. Clive chomped vanilla cookies as the players introduced themselves.
     “How old you think she is?” I asked.
     “Vanna? She been on there a long time,” Clive said.
     “My grandma used to watch this.”
     “She gotta be sixty.”
     “My mom is sixty-two.”
     The cookie crumbs tumbled down his white T-shirt, landed on the carpet. Wayne vacuumed every day while I killed time at the drug rehab across town. Serena said I was lucky, said it often and not always happily. At her group home, she washed dishes, did laundry twice a week, and reported her roommate’s bedwetting.
     “You need to be on there,” Clive said.
     “The show?”
     He nodded. “That be right.”
     “You gotta audition first, old man.”
     “No joke?”
     “They only pick people you’d root for.”
     “That right?”
     I had a gift, a knack for puzzles. Hangman was my favorite growing up, back when Dad was around. I loved letters, words—what they could do, the infinite shades of meaning. Several of my English teachers told me I was special, not to give up on myself, but people are such liars. The bitch whose husband looked like a faggot and whose children looked like her went to the bonus round. The category was Thing. The word was hindsight. She won a sporty green car. Dad used to make fun of the winners on these shows, how they likely couldn’t afford the taxes on their prizes.
     Clive chuckled, wiped the crumbs from his shirt. “Girl gone have trouble.”
     “Why you say that?”
     “Vanna be shady.”
     “Ain’t nothing that slut can do.”
     “She gone smack that woman blind and drive off into the sunset.”
     “With who? Fucking Pat Sajak?”
     Clive grinned, slapped the arm of the recliner. “Naw, boy. She gone knock on that door and come asking for me.”
     Two weeks ago, Clive stopped attending the rehab. I wanted to ask why, but that’s the sort of question you only ask a friend. Wayne shook his head and reported that Clive did nothing but vegetate in front of the tube all morning, all afternoon. Serena asked about him nearly every day. I decided the first day she hounded me to go easy on her. Like our therapists said, this was a selfish program; obsessing over others was the fast road to relapse.
     “I went online last night,” she said. “Do you think Clive has dementia?”
     “What the fuck, Rena?”
     “Sweetheart, I’m serious.”
     I kissed her to shut her mouth. We spent mornings before therapy behind a brick cottage while the fucktards kept the techs busy.
     “He’s old, baby,” I said.
     “He’s younger than my grandpa. He’s barely in his seventies.”
     “Not everyone gets a happy ending.”
     She muttered my name. “Don’t talk shit. Not today, please.”
     “What’s crawled up your ass?”
     “Don’t pretend you care.”
     “You think I’d risk getting busted for just anybody?”
     It was late June in Houston, a couple weeks before I turned twenty-eight. I had a tradition of getting laid on my birthday. Odds of that happening this year weren’t good, but Serena had promised to suck me off—if we were alone long enough, if she could forget about the rape, if her father hadn’t called the night before. For now, I contented myself with her hand shoved inside my boxers, stroking my hard-on. I tried not to fixate on the healed scars crisscrossing her wrist like a pile of tinsel on the ground. Pathetic, that’s the word. I moaned, told her I wanted inside her, but we were both thinking about the lucky fuckers we left behind, like Gina.
     “Will you tell Clive to call me?”
     “Jesus, Rena, at least wait till I come.”
     “Please, baby, I’m serious.”
     “I’ve noticed.”
     “People fucking vanish every day in this fucking place.” She gripped my tool even harder; it sort of hurt. I wondered if Vanna White knew how to give a decent hand job. “Promise you won’t leave me here?” Her eyes glistened with terror, like an English fox dashing from the hounds. “I can’t do this by myself.”
     “You know our deal,” I said.
     “Men are such liars.”
     “It’s cause we hate to disappoint.”
     A tech from the other side of the cottage announced that group was about to begin. Serena’s gaze darted back and forth. Paranoia is just the funhouse reflection of narcissism. I knew I wasn’t special enough to warrant anyone’s attention.
     “We have to go,” she said, withdrawing her hand.
     “Baby, I’m so fucking close.”
     “Yeah,” I said. I grabbed her wrist, the scarred one, yanking her hand out of my shorts. “Tomorrow.”
     Her blue eyes shimmered. Upsetting her was so easy, it was useless trying to protect her. She stumbled away, vanished around the corner. The sun was too much; she wore a long-sleeve pink blouse.
     “Remember our deal,” I called out.
     Wayne met me at the front door after the van dropped me off. I ignored the other patients wishing me goodbye; I didn’t know why they liked me, and I didn’t wish to find out. Clive fell in the closet, Wayne told me. He’s pretty banged up. He’d dropped Clive at the emergency room. He beat himself up for not confronting Clive about all the painkillers he took.
     “Aren’t they prescribed?” I asked.
     Wayne sighed. “You get to be a certain age, those fuckers just dope you up and send you home.” I never called that place home.
     “When’s he coming back?”
     “I’m picking him up tonight.”
     I tried to smile. “Maybe the nurses are hot.”
     While he went to fetch Clive, I watched Vanna and Sajak fuck with the world on TV. A few of the other residents joined me; after all this time, I hadn’t bothered to learn their names. Instead, I memorized their sob stories: the middle-aged black dude with dementia, the 500-pound fucker who made sure we never had leftovers, the schizo who swore he had an inheritance coming real soon. I solved the puzzles before their sorry asses could, but no one was impressed like Clive. I was spoiling things for them. The fat dude started rambling how Taylor Swift’s songs were written just for him. He was always saying random shit. I offered him a Marlboro if he shut the fuck up for the rest of the show. Desperate, that’s the word. In the bonus round, the category was Person, and the solution was mail carrier. No Audi for the insurance adjuster from Tampa, Florida.
     “Dude,” the fat guy said, “you gotta get on that show.”
     “I have bigger worries.”
     “They don’t let felons play,” the schizo informed us, batting at flies that weren’t there.
     “You don’t know that,” the fat guy said.
     “Vanna White drives me home on my birthday,” the schizo replied. No one bothered to call bullshit on him.
     “You assholes work it out amongst yourselves,” I said and stepped outside for a smoke. Soon, I’d be reduced again to the el cheapo cigarillos, less than a dollar-fifty a pack. No more ghost-bright fish on Clive’s Visa.
     Outside, I texted Serena the news about Clive. It was stupid; I shouldn’t have. I didn’t know any details, and that’s the worst kind of bad news—the incomplete kind, the kind that promises something worse, and soon. I wanted someone to feel empty like I did. She never returned my text, but I wasn’t worried; the doctors had Serena on so much sleep medicine, she was lucky to make it through chores without passing out.
     I shit, showered and shaved before bed. Evening was the best time for privacy; I thought about jacking off but decided not to, dumbly hoping Serena would keep her word. Searching the cabinet for shaving cream, I spied a small package wrapped inside a napkin, four vanilla cookies awaiting me. I considered telling Wayne but instead took a bite—disgusting like the dessert on a prison lunch tray. Putting back the remaining three, I thought about the Tooth Fairy. Dad left a five-dollar bill under my pillow for each baby tooth. It’s fucked up how people show their love; it’s more fucked up how we take it and can’t return it.
     I wasn’t too disturbed to find an ambulance and two police cruisers haphazardly parked at the cottage when my van arrived. Some of these patients were one crack-up away from a lifetime in the state hospital. Perfect, I thought, Serena and I can steal away and do whatever we want.
     Lesley called my name, loud and rushed, like she was drowning and I had the last life jacket. We were both in Group C. She grabbed my arm. “Thank God you’re here. We’ve all been waiting for you.”
     Bubbles of panic exploded in my gut. “Jesus, what the hell?”
     “She cut right down to the bone.”
     “What? Who?”
     “Did she call you last night?”
     I’d been here too damn long. I slipped into crisis mode all too easy. “She cut herself?”
     “It’s more than just a cut,” Lesley said.
     “This is Rena we’re talking about?”
     “She did it here.”
     “Can you believe it?”
     “Goddamn her. We had a deal.”
     Since finding me, Lesley had been navigating the pandemonium, urging me toward the cottage. You might think we were friends. My last words stopped her like a brick wall.
     “A deal?” she asked, seizing my other arm, threatening to shake me like a child. “You mean, like, a suicide pact?”
     “What? No—Lesley, don’t be—“
     “I promise I won’t tell.”
     “Where the fuck is she?”
     Enraged, that’s the word.
     Paramedics brought out a gurney supporting a figure blanketed in white. I saw no splotches of red. It could’ve been anyone. There are lots of ways to leave a drug rehab.
     “We love you, Serena!” Lesley shouted, followed by a chorus of patients, tech and therapists. Their love seemed about as sincere as Vanna’s disappointment when a winner bombed the bonus round.
     “You selfish bitch!” I screamed. “We had a deal! You promised me!”
     Lesley and a few other patients tried to hold me back, but they didn’t need to. People are such liars.
     Back home, I took a seat next to Clive. He perched in the same recliner watching TV from morning meds until evening meds. Aside from a bandage taped high on his forehead, he had no visible injuries. I won’t lie; I was relieved. I had refused to speak in group, after watching them haul Serena away —I was fucking tired of babbling about my life and not living it. Seeing Clive watching a Mexican whore forcing a guy she used to fuck take a paternity test filled me with an odd sensation others might call hope.
     “Serena tried to kill herself again this morning.”
     His features sharpened. “No joke?”
     “She cut herself.”
     “Someone needs to smack that woman.”
     “I’ve been tempted.”
     “I know that be right.”
     “She always asks about you.”
     “Well, you tell her if she don’t shape up, I’m gone smack her bottom.”
     On the TV, the slut burst into tears after learning the greasy guy she once fucked was not the baby’s father. I almost had a son once, but Gina got rid of it. No one at the rehab or the group home knew; some things you can’t tell even a friend.
     “You know what I’m in the mood for?” Clive said.
     “Bet I can guess.”
     He staggered to his feet. “You got my number in your head?”
     He chuckled. “Damn good one of us does.”
     Those fucking fish, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The walk to the store got shorter each time, but the walk back grew longer, so much longer. I couldn’t think of anything to say, not even to myself. Alone, that’s the word. I was so lost in what should’ve been thought, I stumbled and almost fell into the ditch, the disgusting water. I had to pay better attention. I had to keep walking. Past the store welcoming every face except mine. I could win the bonus round, no doubt. Vanna would be proud. As I marched farther and farther from home, Clive’s card in my hand, I thought about all the things I needed. I thought about what should be mine.
Thomas Kearnes is a 36-year-old author originally from rural East Texas, now living in Houston. He has published work in The Ampersand Review, PANK, Storyglossia, Word Riot, Eclectica, JMWW Journal, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, A cappella Zoo and numerous GLBT venues. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles. His first two fiction collections, “Pretend I’m Not Here” and “Promiscuous,” will publish this year from Musa Publishing and JMS Books, respectively. He is an Eagle Scout and throws like a girl.