by Seth D. Slater
Everyone was safe in the treehouse: sheltered from eye-patched pirates woodpeg limping with a loudmouthed parrot on the shoulder, blackspots buried in trousers, curses pocketed for future exhortation. Wind blew through autumnal sails as we cut through rough-tough seas, guided by mermaids bare-breasted and singing salty karaoke because we knew X marked the spot where boys learned to double-cross and were bruised blue and blacker for treasure, gold so pure you couldn’t bend it with teeth. We were snug in orbit, our spaceship built of wooden bones, impregnable against bright blue extraterrestrials wielding electric lassos. Galactic bounty hunters had nothing on us; we had porn in the floorboards. We knew what our parents did in the dark. How we got here. Knowledge and spells and plastic weapons protected us. My brother and I would run. Jump. Argue: it’s my turn to play the goddamned hero.
The day our luck began to falter goblins bounded over broken barricades before my mother called Todd and me into dinner. That’s when we met Tennessee Williams. My father, a southern Baptist preacher, had a habit of bringing in strays from Sunday morning service. Come, he’d say with a flourish of the arm that displayed a constant pit-stain. Sit in the front pew closer to Jesus so that I can keep an eye on you. The pews were hard, the carpet splashed with communion, drops of salvation stained beneath sticky footprints. And after a sonorous benediction peddling the blood of Christ, he’d invite strangers home, much to my mother’s Christian chagrin.
Our dining room was lined with bookshelves displaying dogma: there was only room for one book and that was the good book. We’d eaten with drunkards slurring out thanks, hands fumbling with silverware, fine-motor-skills so sunk below whiskeyed waves it was time to jump ship. We’d dined with women of the night, track marks racing up and down arms, cleavage busting at the seams, faces free of anxiety (typically their anxiety had anxiety), free of expectation to perform, to put out, to park ‘n’ please. Meanwhile Todd and I were guiltily tucking in luncheon boners under the table, unable to curb the adolescent streetcar named desire.
The day we ran out of magic and the ghastly goblins gobbled our invisible army, Tennessee Williams poured himself a tall glass of pickle juice directly from the jar and burped out pickled dreams. He was handsome like the badguys on TV. Sober. Cogs and gears and forethought ticking off time behind his eyes. He stayed with us for two weeks. He’d say things like Don’t kick a guy when he’s down because he’ll sweep the leg and One punch, two punch, three punch—he’s out for lunch and Everybody down and nobody gets hurt (on round three of Monopoly).
One day my mother just loses it—because the devil’s a liar and there’s a liar lying in her house, fraudulent to her face. She darts around with bright yellow plastic gloves pulled way up her arms. Wax on. Wax off. Newspaper squeaking against windows. I’m conscripted. She tells me to wind up the vacuum cord, which I do, but Tennessee Williams says to do it again, says to do it faster. That took you twenty-four seconds; you should be able to do it in fifteen. And timing becomes everything. I unload the dishdrainer into the silverware drawer like I’m the Flash, and I fold laundry so fast Tennessee Williams says I’m a shoo-in for Miss America. There were family devotions where Tennessee Williams openly begrudged King David’s voyeuristic view of Bathsheba and said he’d tap that despite clapback and claimed Jacob was a genuine hero; after all, birthrights are serious business. One night there’s a bank robbery on the tube: a self-called John Dillinger protégé behind bars. Tennessee Williams’s pupils engorged, and he laughed a laugh unforgettable. That motherloving idiot. I told him. I told him, he says, a bitter green smile that was somehow minty blossoming across his lips.
Soon after that, Tennessee Williams took Todd and me grocery shopping, said that we need some greens up in this house. Todd and I bike, riding circles around the man as he walks and talks; he tells us that the grossest thing he can think of is shoving six oysters up his grandma’s hoo-ha and sucking out seven. We get to the store, and Tennessee Williams slides on yellow rubber gloves, hands Todd an M-80 and points to the trashcans, says Make it rain. It’s a great prank. We ignited the boom and rode home breathing hard with the weight of guilty success, unaware Tennessee Williams was rifling through the cash register yellow-handed.
There was a cruiser parked in the driveway. We marched in like choir boys. Our parents were parked on the couch, a detective explaining that Tennessee Williams is not Tennessee Williams—a goddamned given—but a pretty good conman, which is when I learned pros and cons always go together. The detective asked, eyes flitting towards us like we’re sporting bikinis, if the boys have ever been in trouble. Todd raised his hand, said he’s hooked on phonics. And I cursed out loud for the first time in my life: only-fucking-if. After that, from time to time, money would appear and disappear next to the Playboys, but I never touched it, never wanted to startle the ghost of a man who never really existed.
Tennessee Williams never physically showed back up to haunt after robbing the local grocer, and to this day I’ve never created another illicit distraction. But that night, the night of the robbery, Todd and I had a final battle, the grand hoorah of our imaginative glass menagerie about to shatter, our last time together in the treehouse, six-shooters drawn, our cow-chaps gooey with imagined blood, our horses whinnying in the deep distance. There’s blood on my hands, Todd says suddenly, startled and staring at empty palms.
No, I say, we’re not done. It’s not over. What are you talking about? And I watch Todd clasp both hands to his chest, corkscrew like a drunken sailor, and fall to the floorboards trying hard not to blink.
Seth D. Slater has contributed to the Chicago Quarterly Review, New Madrid: Journal of Contemporary Literature, Metonym, Le Scat Noir, and The Tishman Review. Slater was an AWP finalist for Best Novel Excerpt 2018 and was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2019. Slater received his MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University.