A/N: I mostly wrote this story while listening to Hot Hot Heat's You Owe Me An IOU, and it has a playful/careless tone to it. I hope no one's offended by some of the insults/overgeneralizations the main character makes, because they don't reflect those of the author's. I certainly don't hate chocolate.
This story is dedicated to Roxaroni. Happy B-day, Rox : D (Yes, I know it wasn't posted on your birthday).
Also, Ajay is pronounced like AJ. Enjoy.
Yes, We're Open
I'll be honest with you, I live in a candy shop.
Most people think this is awesome and ask me for discounts and free samples and crap. They think I organize my week into Truffle Tuesdays and Fudge Fridays. And just for kicks, Marzipan Mondays.
Well, they probably wouldn't get any kicks out of being the owner's son. Daily schedule: Get up at five; unload boxes of candy; skip school; homework can go screw itself; gawk over porn sites.
Okay, well that last one's a lie. I don't get a connection in the candy shop.
My report card's generally too sucky to even be printed, but when it is, it prints U's all the way down my Conduct Grade and L's down my Flag Codes. In English, that's a whole shitload of Unsatisfactory Loss of Credit.
You ask if my parents care. Good question. See, they know I skip school and do one helluva good job ruining my life, but then there's Sally, Sunday, Anton, and Sammy who're up there too, getting recognized with Hell Yeah, I Might Pass Junior High awards.
Sally, Anton, and Sunday are triplets. And yes, you can tell the difference. Sunday recently dyed her hair with an unlabeled hair dye she stole from a thrift store, so now it's green. And as far as I know, Anton is still a boy.
Sammy is the middle child, eight years old. He's wrecked half the attic with aerosols and acrylic paints. My half is still all wood and looks like burnt mushrooms, and Sammy's half is an Yves Klein of blue-green-red-crapcolor body prints. He's not like a normal kid, who dips his hand in acrylics and makes pretty handprints. Instead, he throws his clothes off and chucks himself in paint. Then runs into the wall and says he's just made an Indian cave drawing.
The triplets always pinch me. I mostly take after Dad's Qatarian descent and they think it's funny that my skin is darker than theirs. Then again, if Mom wasn't fooling around, their skin and Sammy's would be just as dark.
Mom's like a diamondback. She slithers around, biting in all the wrong places. There's too much ambition in the flesh between her downbrim hat and her kitten heels. And there's not a dream good enough to exploit this ambition.
So she never settled with being a candy shop owner's wife. Five years after I was born, she started an affair with her second cousin.
You ask if I'm kidding. Well, I'd love to say that Sammy was a product of my parents' affection, but he's not. And neither, for the record, were the triplets.
Mom thought Sammy would be her only screw-up. I don't know how long one person can stand fucking their own cousin, but two years later, she ballooned with another three screw-ups. Only then did she dump Uncle Ted.
Point is, people don't know half the story when they ask for discounts and free samples and crap. Because if they know, are they still willing to spell aquaintance for you?
Just last week, on Truffle Tuesday, a guy walked into the store asking for an application.
"You wanna work here?" I eyed his Michael Jordan height. Apparently, he'd grown taller since we'd been friends.
"Heard you people needed help. What with slow business and all." He stuffed his hands in his hoodie and stared at me.
Son of a bitch, no we don't need help.
"Sure, the applications are right by the licorice stand." I hope you trip over our welcome mat on your way out.
I lied, of course. We don't have applications. Dad likes only having the family run our retail outlet, including a couple of people down the street that he trusts.
"Archer?" The guy fished for my name. I had only let one person call me that years ago. "I think you're in my Bio class."
"I go by Ajay." Like he doesn't know that already. But fine, he can pretend.
He tilted his head and smiled. "I guess you'd know my name if you were in class more often."
Asshole. I wouldn't even need a magnifying glass to find his name on a rat's ass. But I can pretend too.
I opened my mouth. "I doubt that. I wouldn't remember your name if it slammed me in the head."
Oh good. He did the drama-face. People take me too seriously.
"I guess business isn't that bad after all." He turned and started walking out the store. Shit. I just blew off customer service. I watched him leave. The wrinkles in his cargo pants sashayed as nicely as they always did.
On Marzipan Monday, Dad had an order for me. I had to deliver half a dozen boxes of toffee and divinities to the local soup kitchen. Apparently, the soup kitchen exploiters got free candy once a week. Bastards. What did I get once a week? Try a new coat of body prints on my attic wall.
Of course, Dad couldn't deliver the candy himself. He was trying to hide his empty aerosols and his bright Rudolf nose. All he could slur was, "'s right on southwes-s-st-ninths-s-street."
He wasn't drunk. Just high from bagging. Sure, he might burst a kidney or liver any day, but for him those few minutes of euphoria were worth it. Slow body functions. Syrupy intoxication. Saccharine loss of control. Until—
SSD. Sudden Sniffing Death.
Anton warned him about this. In first grade, the kid was caught sniffing glue and his teacher told him all about SSD. Now he won't touch glue with a ten-meter pole.
But on Monday, Dad was especially hammered with inhalants. He was about to pass out.
So I did the first best thing and grabbed the empty aerosol can from him and let him pass out behind the counter. We don't get much business on Mondays anyway.
It was almost eleven-thirty in the morning when I loaded the boxes in my 1971 Chevrolet Corvette. Sure, I was skipping again. But this time it was different. I was on important business for the store, or so I liked to think.
The brick building on Southwest 9th Street had a sign on it: Hope's Soup Kitchen. How cute. I was almost surprised when a fruity elf didn't pop out at me from the back entrance.
I carted the candy boxes up the back door ramp. It was drizzling outside, so inside it was warmer. I heard voices, shouting-laughing-talking. The place sounded busier than our store before Easter.
"This from the candy store? On fifth terrace?" A pot-bellied man in a baseball cap moseyed into the warehouse-like room and stared at my half-dozen boxes.
"Yeah. Where do these go?"
"Jus' leave 'em there."
I piled the boxes into a corner by larger boxes that read Hope's Soup Kitchen Clothing and Hope's Soup Kitchen Emergency Food Packages.
"This place gives out clothes too?" I raised my eyebrows.
"Yep. People get everything they need here." He wiped his hands on his stained apron. "Say, you got some time? I could show you around."
"No thanks. I've got another order to deliver."
"You sure? It won't take long."
I was pseudo-apologetic. "Sorry, but I've really gotta—"
Footsteps sounded down the hall. Someone shouted:
"Bartley, where're the mudcakes? Missus Red wants an extra mudcake for lunch—" He stopped short. It was TTA, the Truffle Tuesday Applicant.
"Ajay." He looked pissed.
"You work here?"
"Volunteer. What the hell are you doing here?"
Geez. Give me a break.
"Delivering candy. What's it look like?"
TTA did the raised-eyebrows-yeah-right-don't-shit-with-me face.
Bartley the Pot-Belly was inquisitive. "Is something wrong?"
No, moron. We're just having polite tea conversation.
"Well, it looks like you're done delivering candy." TTA tried to look intimidating, but that fruity white apron didn't help.
What spoon was up his ass? All I did was insult his name last Tuesday.
"Actually, Bartley here was just about to show me around." I was smug.
"Great!" Bartley clapped his hands together. "It won't take but a couple of minutes."
TTA gave me a long stare. Then he stormed out. I'm not ashamed to say I stared at his ass when he left. Geez, I need to stop doing that.
"Don't mind 'im. He's just not great with new people." Bartley's teeth were crooked when he smiled. Yeah, if only you knew.
Bartley waddled out of the room, beckoning me to follow. The narrow hallway led to the kitchen, a beehive of activity. People in aprons and white hats and baseball caps were making sandwiches, salads, and boiling large pots of soup. The smells were intoxicating. And not as bad as Dad's aerosols.
TTA was building sandwiches out of his Lego-colored tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. His fingers were as quick as a pianist's playing a tarantella. In fact, that's probably where he'd trained them. He'd taken piano lessons when he was ten.
"We get about thirty regular volunteers here every day." Bartley gestured the volunteers, who looked like Santa's elves building Christmas toys.
"We mostly serve lentil soup but a lot of the food's free. We get our stuff from food banks. They're mighty nice to help out all the needy folks."
Bartley threw me an apron and winked. "Here, how 'bout you lend us a hand?"
Fucking scammer. He didn't care about showing me around. He just wanted me to volunteer. Still, I grabbed the apron to appease him and plunged my hands into the Lego tomatoes.
Thwak. What the hell?
"Who threw a spoon at me?" I rubbed the sore spot in my dark hair.
TTA glare-smirked. "Just thought you needed help remembering. Name's Fletch, for the record."
Geez. Like I didn't know.
"And you should use gloves for that." He gestured my tomato-sauced hands.
I grunted and pulled on a pair of plastic gloves. So Fletch was still mad. I guess I can't blame him, even though it's been years. I was pretty mean to him that day in mid-August. I let us smash something worthwhile.
Ten minutes later, I gave up on the one sandwich I made. Fletch got pissed again and grabbed my hands out of the saucy tomatoes.
"Wash your hands. You're not even trying. If it's so much easier, why don't you go back to delivering candy?"
I washed my hands. We were alone in a corner of the kitchen.
Fletch scrutinized me. He was pissed and he wanted me to hurt, because I'd hurt him years ago. So he opened his mouth. "You don't care about being here, do you, Ajay? You don't give a fuck about these people. Maybe you should just go back to your sweet little candy shop. That's where you'll get your customers. Where you'll fake-smile at them while your dad's in the storage room sniffing Sammy's paints and your mom's cheating on him with her own cousin. That's where you'll fit in."
I squirted soap on my hands.
"Did you hear me? I want you out of here."
I lathered my sauce-red fingers. What pretty bubbles.
"I'm telling you to get out."
Rinse rinse rinse. Like a dishwasher. Rinse rinse rinse.
Fletch looked at the ceiling and sighed. I turned off the water knob.
"Can I work here?"
Fletch paused like a Greek statue. "What did you just say?"
Oh fuck. What did I just say?
"You heard me. I want to work here." I'm such a dumbass. I need to shut my mouth.
Fletch looked at me carefully, like he thought I was a Jack-in-the-box about to pop out with a Yeah Right, Sucker! Imagine my own surprise when I didn't.
Fletch gave me another long look. Then he carefully said, "We serve lunch from eleven to one. I'm only here from eleven-thirty till noon, because I have Lunch C at school. Depending on what lunch you have at school, that's your shift."
Long pause. He waited for me to change my mind. I waited with him.
Then finally, "But remember, you're not getting paid for this. You're volunteering."
He took me for an idiot, apparently. I guess it's not the first time.
"Okay, I'll be here from eleven to one."
He looked pissed-off again. "I said your shift depends on what lunch you have. Bartley won't let you skip school to volunteer."
I shrugged. "It's not like I'm there half the time anyway."
"Well, I don't want you to skip school."
"I don't give a shit about what you want." And they say lying never hurt anybody.
Fletch was about to retort. Instead he sighed and said, "Asshole."
He never meant it when he called me names. I smiled. "So, where are they? The poor people. Where do they get their soup?"
Fletch started walking out of the kitchen, expecting me to follow. He threw open a door at the end of a wide hallway, and in front of us was a cafeteria of teeming people gulping down the Elves' Christmas toys. Oh gee, what a surprise. They weren't all bums.
"I have to get to school in ten minutes, so I'm having lunch now." Fletch sat down at a piss-colored table. "You can do whatever you want. Go volunteer in the kitchen. Sort through clothes sizes. That's on the hallway on the left."
I sat down across from him at the ugly table and watched him eat lentil soup. Fletch had a habit of missing his mouth with the spoon when he ate. Soup trickled down his chin until he picked up the napkin to wipe it off. This amused me. I laughed at him.
"Shut up." He wiped half his face with the napkin. It was the first time since we were reacquainted that it seemed like he cared what I thought of him.
My family barely used napkins. We just slurped all our food and we sounded like straws in empty soda glasses. Only Anton broke the tradition. Last week, he grabbed a few napkins after we left Wendy's. It made me think that other traditions could be broken.
Fletch pushed the lentil soup toward me. "Well, why don't you try it? I'd like to see how well you eat soup without napkins." He's so volatile. In five minutes, he can insult and then smile nicely. I guess that's why he was so appealing years ago.
To humor him, I grabbed his spoon and slurped the soup until it trickled down my chin and I looked like a slobbering dog.
Fletch laughed. "Wow, you suck."
I smiled to myself and wiped the soup from my face with a napkin. I pushed the soup bowl back toward him and he continued gulping it down.
The people in the soup kitchen were bundled in Crayola multi-colors. At the candy store, most of the people who walked in wore safe colors. No neons. No Oh-fuck-My-eyes! colors. Now that I thought of it, they were pretty prudish.
Fletch got up with his empty bowl. I didn't know what to do with myself, so I followed him back into the kitchen, where he washed his bowl. We got ready to leave. We left the aprons in the kitchen, where the other volunteers were still making sandwiches.
Fletch and I walked out the backdoor of Hope's Soup Kitchen in silence. In my mind, I was fitting volunteering into my daily schedule.
I'll be honest, I asked to volunteer for two reasons. I did it for myself, since I stopped liking delivering candy long ago. And for Fletch. Because, when I finally came out to him our freshman year, he came out to me too. And the most fucking terrifying thing was how fixed and solid and unchangeable this decision was, and how I wanted to change it and swallow what I'd told Fletch. So I backed out. I laughed at Fletch and told him I was just kidding. I wasn't really gay. But he said he was and if I couldn't deal with that, then that's fine, he could deal with me being an asshole. And that was our friendship, that was us—split into an individual u and s.
Outside, Fletch paused by his Acura and stared at me for a long moment, like he was too embarrassed about doing-thinking-saying something. It was almost twelve. I thought of Cinderella and how she ran out of the prince's castle at midnight, because her carriage would turn into a pumpkin. Maybe, now that I'd walked out of the soup kitchen, at noon, my pumpkin would turn into a carriage.
Fletch stared at the ugly sky. "English starts in about ten minutes for me. I could drop you off at school if you want."
What a thoughtful bastard.
"I have my own car, but thanks."
"Are you going to skip?"
I shrugged. Fletch fumbled with his car keys. The ugly sky drizzled a little.
"Thanks, Archer." Fletch scrubbed at some fading paint on his car.
Jesus, he's so sentimental. I didn't ask what the thanks was for. Probably something fruity like for helping at a soup kitchen.
He stepped forward.
I guess I expected it. This should have happened years ago, when we were just discovering our shameful ideas. Back when I stopped liking chocolate and when I wanted what he wanted and he wanted what we both wanted. When, by that time, he had always hated chocolate too.
So, in a quick-flash-what-just-happened moment, he grabbed my prudish coat and smacked our mouths together.
If Fletch were to describe it, he wouldn't have said smacked, he would have used pressed or pushed.
But either way, I didn't mind it.
Best thing was, his lips weren't sweet.