Rejection Letters

Are You Messing With Me?

1.

Friday at school I did nothing but read my grandpa’s journal. In class I kept the red leather-bound book in my lap, glancing down at his meticulous handwriting every chance I got. I spent swim class reading in the bleachers, having pled “intestinal problems” to my coach.

After school Shoji and I ate chili cheese fries at Tops, over which I filled him in on a few new developments. I expected a lecture about making money and being responsible, but he was more impressed than anything. Back at his house, as I quoted passages from the journal, he riffled through his dad’s bedroom closet looking for the alcohol he’d sworn was there. It was.

One dusty unopened quart-size vodka.  We walked down to Luke’s house with the bottle sloshing around in my backpack. Shoji rambled nonstop about me taking classes with him at Art Center and us maybe sharing an apartment. “Shut up,” I said. He did, and for the rest of the way I focused my eye on the line down the middle of the sidewalk, as my gut started to bubble, and I had this terrifying realization that I was ruining my life.

We sat in lounge chairs by Luke’s pool and drank. I paired my phone to his speakers and played The Smiths.

After three songs, I broke the silence. “This morning I fed my college applications to the shredder.”

Luke scowled. “That’s moronic.”

Shoji jumped in. “I already know about it.”

Luke’s black Nike was on the cement between us. Without thinking I hurled it into the pool.

“You fucking dick,” Luke said. “Go get it.”

Fetching his shoe with a net at the end of a long pole, I felt combative, like I wanted to swing the pole at anyone who dared to question my plans.

We sat there, the three of us watching the green-lit pool. Several songs came and went before Luke reached into the ice chest for the clear plastic pitcher of vodka and tangerine juice, and refilled our glasses. We called them Votans, and drank them every Friday night wherever we wouldn’t be bothered by parents.

“Moronic? More like genius.” I took a good long sip. “Last week when I met my real sister, Julie —”

“Half-sister,” Shoji interjected. “Same mom, different dad.”

I threw Shoji a look. “She told me our grandpa — he died before we were born — she said he was a manager for strippers.”

Luke topped off his Votan. “Like full-on nude?”

“Nah, just a flash of titty at the end of the show,” Shoji said, as he snapped pictures of us with his phone. “With tassels on their nipples. Right, Henry?”  I knew as soon as Shoji got home he’d print out the pictures and tape them over his bed.

“It’s called burlesque.” I almost added that Julie was a stripper, too, the all-nude kind, but decided to withhold that secret. Julie confided in me when we met, just us, over dinner at the Chili’s in Fontana.  Harboring a secret with my only living bio-relative gave me an intimate sense of family I’d never felt before.

“So why the fuck did you trash your college apps?”

“Cause yesterday I got his journal in the mail. My sister sent it. It’s exactly what he did every single day in 1963 and ’64, right down to how many cups of black coffee he drank with lunch. For a whole year he toured the country with ten hot chicks. On their own bus. Canada and Mexico, too.”

“Your grandma was down with this?”

“Freddy, that’s his name —” Shoji gestured with his drink like he was at a cocktail party — “he ran away from Henry’s grandma. He left her dirt poor with a bunch of kids.”

“Yo, Sho, let me tell it.” I turned to Luke. “See, Grandpa Freddy couldn’t take it anymore. Part of what made him leave was he wanted to perform, too.”

“You shitting me? Your grandpa was a stripper?”

“No, fool, he was the M.C., you know, Master of Ceremonies. He told dirty jokes in- between the dancing girls.”

“Good part!” Luke blared the music. We all sat up and sang along.

“And if a ten ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”

We laughed.

I got up and refilled our drinks this time. Finding it impossible to keep the pitcher steady, I sloshed booze over their hands. As I plopped down it dawned on me how much better I felt about my future. Instinctively, I knew I was making the smartest decision of my life. “In seven months my life will be all mine. I can go to Antarctica if I want. I can do anything.  And knowing that, the thought of subjecting myself to more school, it just seems idiotic.  Starting next summer I’m going on the road for a year like my grandpa. I’m following the same route as him. If the motel he stayed in is still open, then I’ll stay there, and in the same room if I can. I’ll eat where he ate, order what he ordered. And check out the theaters his girls danced in.”

Luke glanced up from packing the orange glass bong to give me a WTF look.

Shoji shrunk back as if he’d just been slapped across the face. “I thought bailing on college meant you’re staying here. You didn’t tell me you’re going away.”

“I haven’t told anybody, not even my parents.”

“They’ll have you locked up,” Luke said. “All your dad talks about is Berkeley.”

“I can do whatever the fuck I want when I’m eighteen. Anyway, he’s not my real dad.” “Whoa,” Shoji said. “Burn.”

“He and your mom raised you since you were crapping your nappies.” Luke threw a squeaky plastic turkey leg into the pool. Pym, their standard poodle, barked inside the house. “Hardcore disrespect.”

“I have to do this.”

“What the hell’s the point?” Luke said, sparking up, causing the bong water to gurgle. “Come on, most of the places’ll be torn down. 1963?” As he talked, smoke spewed from his mouth. “I applied at Berkeley because you said you were.”

He passed me the bong. As soon as I exhaled I knew I was super-wasted. I needed water but settled for more Votan.

“It’s like being a detective,” I said, not sure how to convince them my plan was watertight. “I’ll hunt for clues. Maybe I’ll write about it, or film it.  My goal is to find and meet a single person, like this barber he gets blitzed with in Milwaukee, or this Voodoo lady in Alabama who makes him a love potion, I don’t know, someone who met and remembers my grandpa. I don’t care what anyone says. I’m doing it.”

“Take that, fucker.” Luke whacked the sole of his wet shoe against the ice chest. “It’s sick how moth carcass gets all powdery. Henry, dude, money — How do you pay for this?”

“Get a whole bunch of credit cards,” Shoji said.

Luke’s parents slammed their car doors. “Fuck. Take the stuff out the side gate. Go to the vacant lot on Allendale.”

Lights flashed on in the house as Shoji and I shot through the iron gate in the adobe wall. We waited for Luke on the sidewalk. When he arrived with a couple army blankets we set off on the four block trip. Most of this is hazy. Miraculously, I did not puke.  Finally, at the property, we traipsed through the weeds to the far back against a tall chain link fence entangled with vines. We spread the blankets and dropped to the ground. An old brown house, like a giant cabin, was on one side of the lot, and an elementary school admin building on the other.  Through the vines I saw a backstop. We filled our glasses, the bong, and played my new favorite old band, Led Zeppelin.

The lot was more alive than Luke’s backyard. Rats raced through the oak trees. A possum dug for grubs. I remember a used rubber on the fence glistening in the moonlight, and Luke poking it with a stick. At one point I think Shoji offered us Tums.

“Do you think Grandpa Freddy’s somehow, you know, messing with me from the grave?”

“You think he fucked all his dancers?” Luke asked.

“Nope. He wants to, but says in his journal that he can’t break some burlesque oath. He gets a hooker every Monday and Thursday if the town’s big enough.”

I made a mental note to Google the dancers. Roobie Toobie. Tickles Kurnley. Fern Adams. One of them might still be alive.

Luke held the lighter as Shoji smoked. Shoji coughed till his eyes watered. “Are you going on a bus?” he said, his voice raspy.

“Nah. I’ll be solo in the Mitsubishi.” “Alone?”

That’s about the last thing I remember.

2.

Sunlight pried my eyes open. I couldn’t move. I’d woken to the unmistakable crack of a baseball hitting wood, anxious cheering, annnd you’rrre OUT! Through the vines I had a skewed view of the red backstop about twenty feet away, and the chalk foul line leading to the first baseman. Luke and Shoji were still asleep. I could do nothing but lay there, the side of my head propped up on my knuckles. I felt close to death physically, but also mentally as I fretted over how to tell my parents what I was going to do. The sickening smell of vodka and tangerine, and the sight of ants swarming my glass, added to my plight.

Listening to the game, I caught an occasional glimpse of a kid running towards first. A whistle blew. It’s horrible shrillness caused my hangover to take full possession of me. “Okay, Wild Cats, let’s break,” a man shouted. “Mrs. Vanderhorn has kindly supplied you with water and oranges. Fifteen minutes. Move it.”

Disgusted with myself for waking up in a trash-strewn vacant lot, I started to doze off again. I opened my eyes when two players came behind the backstop. I could see them perfectly between two purple flowers, a boy and a girl. They stood near a heap of navy blue windbreakers. The boy was pudgy with bangs in his face. The girl, who had huge brown eyes like a lemur, would be foxy when she got to high school.  They were ten, maybe eleven years old. I could barely hear their conversation. Unlike most kids, these two spoke in whispers.

They riffled through the team jackets, and plucked one out. They paced, looking for something in the grass.

The boy found a plastic spoon. The girl found a stick. They squatted down beside a colossal pile of dog shit. I could tell it was fresh from the sunlight glinting off of it. I still can’t believe what they did next. He used the spoon and she the stick to coat the inside of the windbreaker with poop. They filled the pockets. Wiped along the collar, and up the sleeves.

Their expressions were serious, determined. When they were done they returned the jacket. I fell back to sleep, not waking until I heard someone cry out: “There’s poo on me!”

3.

After the fourth inning, Coach Shaw jogged out to the mound. Steve, the pitcher, jumped out of his way. Coach Shaw, six-five and balding, blew the whistle he kept on a leather cord around his neck. “Okay, Wild Cats, let’s break.” His son, Jim, was the Wild Cats’ gangly, inept shortstop, a brat who liked to kick dogs. Jim was friends with Steve and two other guys on the team, the select few invited to his house for pool parties, and who referred to the coach as Judge Shaw.

The Wild Cats were in last place. Since late August when the new fall league started up, they hadn’t come close to winning a single game. Now, on the last day of October, Coach Shaw was determined to give his team the thrill of victory just once before the season ended. They were playing the second to last place Badgers that afternoon. Maybe there was hope.

The team, all boys and one girl, scattered in various directions. Gunner, the right fielder, and Lisette, center, made a beeline for the restrooms. Coach Shaw bellowed their names. They sprinted towards him, knowing if they didn’t he’d order them to. On the mound, looming over them like a sun-blocking giant, he said, “I’ve had it with the chitchat, the giggling, the constant silliness. Gunner, you’re twirling around like a ballerina out there, hair hanging over your eyes, your cap in the dugout, enough already. You’re not even trying to catch the ball. It’s here on the field we prepare for life, and I don’t see you making a good start.” Coach Shaw’s phone rang and he shooed the kids away.

Gunner and Lisette moped all the way to the restrooms where they got Cokes from the vending machine.

“Why does Coach hate you so much?” Lisette said, removing her orange and black cap. “Cause I’m not Steve. Steve’s perfect. Steve pitches like a pro.” Gunner downed his

Coke and tossed the can in a dumpster. “He blames me for us losing.”

“It’s so not fair,” Lisette said, as she tripped over the buckled asphalt, and dropped her Coke. Cold soda sprayed her bare legs. “Crapola!” Washing her legs under the drinking fountain, she looked into his eyes. “Steve told Jim you play with dolls.”

“What? No I don’t. It’s an old G.I. Joe. Steve’s such a dick. He used to be my best friend. Now I hate him.”

“Did you see him try to ping me on purpose when I was at bat? Coach Shaw didn’t even care.” Lisette furiously scratched her scalp. “Steve’s hair is like Ronald McDonald’s.”

“I’m never biking to school with him again. I hate his mom, too. When I get to his house in the morning she won’t leave me alone.”

“Like how?” Lisette adjusted the scrunchie in her long brown hair before putting her cap back on.

“She thinks my mom’s bad for not giving me vitamins.” “Vitamins?”

“Yeah. She sells them door-to-door. They’re religious vitamins. After you buy them she makes you get born-again. We’re never home when she comes by, but the neighbors told us.”

“Once,” Lisette said, “she looked at me weird, and goes, ‘Why do you play on the boys’ team?’ I’m like, ‘you’re so prejudiced.’”

They took the long way around the field.

“Did your mom finish your costume?” he asked.

“Yeah.  It’s way better now with my brother’s giant red high-tops.” “Be at my house at seven, and don’t forget the candles and the lighter.”

Behind the backstop, not far from the fence, Gunner pointed at a mound of dog shit. “Watch out.” Lisette’s cleat came within an inch.

“Yucky,” she squealed.

“I have an idea.” He looked around to make sure no one was watching. When the coast was clear, he dug through the windbreakers until he found the one with Steve’s name patch.

“Look in the grass for the biggest stick you can find.” A moment later he held up a plastic spoon. “Awesome. This’ll work.”

Lisette gripped a stick with a baby pinecone clinging to the middle. “What am I supposed to do?”

Gunner whispered in her ear.

She held her nose with one hand and used the other to scrape dog shit into Steve’s pockets.

“I’m frosting his jacket,” Gunner said, using the spoon to spread inside.

“This is the meanest, grossest thing ever,” Lisette said, starting to retch. “It really stinks.”

Gunner’s face contorted. “He deserves it.”

They dropped the windbreaker slightly apart from the others, coolly backtracked to the restrooms, and then crossed the field toward oranges and teammates.

Practice ended at 9:00 AM. Everyone congregated behind the backstop.  Boasting that his fastball would strike out every last Badger, Steve slipped into his jacket. Lisette peeked through her bony fingers. Gunner watched head-on. Steve put his hands in the pockets, whipped them out, and shrieked, “There’s poo on me! Someone put poo in my jacket.” He threw the stinking windbreaker on the ground, kicking it far away as if it were a wild animal trying to bite him.

“What the hell! Who’s responsible for this?” Coach Shaw roared. “This was no accident. Someone did this on purpose. Who would do this to a teammate?”

The kids eyed each other with suspicion. No one thought it was funny.

Steve carefully stripped off his t-shirt, pitched it like a red hot coal, wiped his hands on the grass, and started to gag.

Coach Shaw jabbed his finger in Gunner’s direction. “Was it you?” All eyes turned on Gunner.

“Well, speak up. If you did it, admit it right now.” Gunner felt the collective disgust. He froze.

Unnoticed, Lisette walked off.

“What the hell is wrong with you? What the — when your dad gets here I’m telling him you need psychiatric help.”

Steve got up in Gunner’s face ready to swing. “My mom told me you weren’t a real friend.” Gunner tried to hold him back. “Now I believe her.” He grabbed Gunner’s wrists. “You’re the devil. And a fuck.” Coach Shaw pulled Steve away.

“Your ass is cold dead meat, faggot,” Jim said, inserting himself into the action.

Gunner’s arms flopped at his sides. Coach Shaw backed off. Steve waited for Gunner to offer an explanation, to cry, to do something. Gunner was speechless. He glanced left and right hoping Lisette’s presence would bolster him, but she was gone. For a split-second he and Steve made eye contact, but that was too scary, and so he moved his gaze just to the left of Steve.

Through the fence, barely off the ground, he saw eyes glaring at him. He brushed the hair out of his face. Was it a dead person? A murder victim? The eyes blinked. Gunner gasped. It took strength to concentrate on them, and yet they seemed to grant strength in return. Whoever it was he was sure they were sending him messages, formless messages he could not decode. They were locked in a staring game — the longer it lasted, the safer he felt. If he looked away the spell would break and the team would pounce on him. He tried sending a message: Help. A clear message came back.

“A dead person,” Gunner screamed, pointing. “Look, eyes!”

The whole team ran to the fence. Coach Shaw went to investigate.

There was commotion on the other side, voices indicating more than one person. “Haul ass!” one of them said.

Steve, followed by Jim, mounted the chain link fence, and like monkeys they ripped at vines as they scaled ten feet to the top. Coach Shaw ordered them down at once.

In the midst of this ruckus, the Wild Cats didn’t notice Gunner fleeing the scene, escaping into his dad’s idling Volvo.

4.

Gunner’s parents, who read books as they ate dinner, were oblivious to their son’s eerie, persistent stare. Gunner eyeballed his turkey meatloaf, as his mind replayed the day’s events.

He worried that something bad was going to happen Monday at school, that Jim and Steve might kill him. All the more reason, he thought, to go through with the ritual.

The phone rang. Gunner shivered as Coach Shaw’s voice boomed in from the kitchen answering machine, a brief message asking that his call be returned to discuss an important matter.

“What’s that all about?” Mr. Strabo said, turning a page.

“I quit the team today. He probably wants you to make me come back.” “Do you want to go back?”

“No.”

“I’d prefer to see your math grade rise from a B to an A.”

Mrs. Strabo marked her page with a black ribbon. “You’re not really going trick-or- treating, are you?”

“We’re just dressing up and walking around.” “Be home by nine.”

Gunner got up from the table.

“Erase the message, will you,” Mr. Strabo said. “I’m not calling that windbag.”

In the bathroom Gunner dressed in his costume. He heard the doorbell a few times and his dad’s feeble attempts to joke with the kids. Waiting for Lisette, he watched clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on YouTube. As Leatherface hung a girl on a meat hook, Lisette walked into his room. One look at each other, and they exploded into laughter. Gunner was an old-fashioned hobo. Lisette wore a red ski mask and a red bandana tied around her head. She lifted up her skirt to reveal a beach ball fastened to her butt.

“What are you supposed to be?”

“A fat red weirdo, obviously,” she said.

“Um, okay. You definitely look weird. Do my face,” he said.

She charred the end of a cork with her lighter. Once it cooled she used it to draw a beard on him. With his holey plaid pants and Hawaiian shirt from Goodwill, and his mom’s black canvas gardening hat, he looked like an urchin in a school musical.

Gunner yelled Bye as they entered the darkness. Lisette carried a potato sack. Gunner’s hands were free. During the fifteen minute walk to the Devil’s mansion, they saw adults in monster masks driving to parties, and packs of costumed children crowding festive doorways. At one point Gunner started to sulk about Lisette abandoning him when the team attacked, but Lisette apologized and kissed him on the cheek, which seemed to make everything better.

A warm wind picked up. Gunner reminded her it wasn’t too late to turn back. Lisette kept marching.

The property took up half a block. The front was an endless jungle they’d passed a thousand times, and yet they had no idea what the house looked like. They entered through the gate which was always open. A few steps in, they stopped. There was barely enough moonlight to guide them.

“It feels creepy here,” Lisette said, trying to sniff the air from under her ski mask. “The sounds are different, and the smells.”

“It’s a true haunted forest.”

They advanced, shoulders together, hearts pounding. The driveway curved to the left and the house came into view. It definitely was a mansion, with pointed towers and stained glass windows, and not all that different from what they’d imagined. Only a few lights were on inside. Gunner led the way to the dark side of the house, to a rose garden. “Now,” he said. Lisette removed two black taper candles from her potato sack, and the lighter from her apron pocket.

Facing the house, they held their lit candles out in front of them. “Stare at the fire. Concentrate on your wish.”

“I’m trying, but my head itches.”

“Invisible creatures of the night,” Gunner whispered, “grant us our wishes with your incredible powers.”

A calmness fell over them like a net of spider silk. The candle flames did indeed put them in a trance, if only for a minute or two.

A crow cawed in a nearby tree. “That’s the force telling us we’re done.”

After melting some wax near the midsection of each candlestick, they stuck them together to form a cross. The wicks continued to burn as Gunner set the cross at a slant against a rock in front of the house. Taking a final look at the Devil’s mansion, he silently asked the force once again to either kill Steve and Jim, or to make him invisible.

5.

The hangover killed my Saturday, which happened to be Halloween. There was no way I could go to Kila’s party, and besides, I was wracked with anxiety over how to break my plans to my parents.

When I told mom I was staying home, she assumed I was getting a cold. “I have some History reading to catch up on.” My tone gave me away.

“What’s wrong, Henry? Are you depressed? You’ve been through a lot lately, meeting Julie, finding out about your birth parents.”

“I’m fine. Just mellow.”

“Then I have a job for you.”

She sent me to spend the night with my grandparents, my adoptive mother’s parents, that is — though I deeply love them. A Thai nurse and housekeeper, young sisters, live with them in a huge old house on the west side of Pasadena that’s straight out of Ichabod Crane. Mom grew up there. “The sisters want the night off to attend a Halloween party,” she said.

I brought El Pollo Unico. We ate off ornate china in their formal dining room. They’re snobs, but not about food.

“Tell us about this Julie,” Grandmother said, as she scooped up beans with a tortilla.

Grandfather wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his cashmere sweater. “Your mother says she collects public assistance.”

Wanting to avoid the topic, I gnawed on a drumstick. “I don’t know. She’s nice. We have the same green eyes.”

“I hope meeting her gave you a newfound appreciation for us, the family who reared you,” Grandmother said.

I dutifully nodded. They’d be shocked if I told them the truth, that I was secretly proud of having a sister who was a stripper, a pole dancer in San Bernardino. My real grandfather and my real sister were people they’d call sleazy. If they knew details about them, and eventually they would, their opinion of me would change.

Grandfather spoke with his mouth full. “Is she pretty?” “I guess. She has lots of tattoos and a pierced brow.”

“A what?” Grandmother said.

I zoned out on the candles flickering between the marble busts on the mantle. “Do you have candy to pass out? It’s Halloween.”

Grandfather chuckled. “We’ve never had a trick-or-treater, not once.” “Children fear this house. Henry, pour me some more green tea.”

I got up and refilled our cups. Grandmother ignored her tea, and asked me instead to pull out her chair.  I helped her to stand, and to grab hold of her walker.  She shuffled out of the room.

Grandfather reached for a thigh and another Styrofoam container of salsa. “Have you ever been to a burlesque show?”

His sly grin told me he had. “How do you know that word? Burlesque’s a thing of the past.”

“Saw it in an old movie.”

“Up in San Francisco I once poked my head into the Rosetta Theatre.
A girl —”

The sound of Grandmother dragging her walker across the wooden floor brought our conversation to a halt. “It’s time for you to help us up the stairs,” she said, standing in the doorway.

After seeing them to their respective bedrooms, I got stoned on the front veranda. Two puffs were enough. I used a little spit to douse the cherry, and poked the joint into my wallet. Thinking of the vacant lot where my day began, and the ferocious little kids who tried to get us, I burst out laughing. From the lot we’d gone to Shoji’s where they made me repeat again and again the story about the jacket and the weird boy. Luke impressed me when he said the boy was probably being bullied, that maybe he’d reached his breaking point.

I got all cozy with a slice of carrot cake and Grandpa Freddy’s journal on the couch in the library. The entry for December 4, 1963, caught my attention.

It’s only our fourth night in Baltimore and Tickles already has a boyfriend. Didn’t think much of it till I met the fellow backstage. He goes by the name “Chunkers” Altobelli. Not only is he swarthy, but he told me in no uncertain terms that his friends — more Italian names — are paying me a visit in the morning with a business proposition. If I get strong-armed by the mafia I’ll kill Tickles. I’ll grab her by the throat and give her what she deserves.

I was just about to learn what happened, when I heard footsteps on the gravel outside, which I attributed to either raccoons or PIP (pot induced paranoia). I grabbed my phone, looked out the window, and was spooked by two people lingering in front of the house.  It was dark, but I could tell they were small and costumed. Considering it was Halloween and only eight-thirty, I calmed down. They were brave trick-or-treaters.  I was about to go to the door to offer them a bag of M & M’s from my backpack, but to my surprise they disappeared around the side of the house. I went to Grandfather’s dark study where I peered through wooden shutters. Standing in the rose garden, they each held a burning candle. Now I could see them better. One wore a red ski mask and had a giant ass that could not have been real. The other, a kid for sure, sported a floppy hat and fake beard. I was scared they were going to torch the house. Instead, they made a cross out of the candles, set it on the ground, and bolted. By the time I got out there they were gone. Utterly freaked, I crouched over the black candles and watched them burn. I don’t know why I filmed it, but I did. And as my iPhone recorded the dancing flames, the pooling of wax, I narrated: Grandpa Freddy, are you messing with me?

***

Greg Chandler’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Hobart, Joyland, Fresh Yarn, the Encyclopedia Project, The Barcelona Review, The Wag, Southern Ocean Review, Christopher Street, and the New Times LA.  He’s recently finished a novel called Bee’s Tree.

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