Howie and Jerome

This was the first fiction I ever had published, and it earned me a nice chunk of change. It took third place in the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation‘s Creative Writing Competition for Young Adults in 2004. It also introduced me to Sadie, a character who has been a pervasive presence in my fiction writing ever since.

Howie and Jerome

“Give me one good reason anyone should have to get completely naked to get ready for gym! I mean it’s not like they’re on a sports team or anything! It’s fucking gym, for God’s sake!” Sadie paused as the glass doors parted noiselessly and she and Shawn entered the Wal-Mart lobby hand in hand. “I mean, maybe if they were at least cute or had big tits or something I’d think they were just showing off, but we’re talking Kathleen Jindal and Jessica Gibbs here! Nobody wants to see that! It’s like a John Waters movie or something. And right before lunch, too!”

“Yeah, I wish my problems had to do with too many naked girls in my school day,” Shawn smirked.

She goosed his side with her free thumb and was surprised as usual at how mushy his waist felt. “Afternoon, Howie!” She waved at the elderly greeter in the trademark blue vest, who smiled mechanically and doffed a non-existent hat.

“You know that guy?” Shawn asked, dropping her hand to circumvent a cardboard display of Green Bay Packers umbrellas.

“Howie? Oh yeah, me and him go way back.” Sadie found his guitar-calloused hand offputtingly clammy when they rejoined on the other side.

“His name tag said Alvin.”

“He might have put on the wrong tag. Howie’s old. He gets confused.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m serious! He lives on my street and sometimes we find him sleeping on our couch when we come home because he forgot which house is his!”

“You’ve never even met that guy, have you?”

“Um… Well, technically no. But isn’t Howie a better name for him than Alvin? He’s totally a Howie.”

“You said the same thing about Mr. Elridge.”

“Yes I did, because he’s old too. In a perfect world, all old men would be named Howie. When they put me in charge of the universe, that’ll be my first rule.”

They stepped past a shopping cart overflowing with unshelved children’s videos and into the electronics department. Shawn headed straight for the CD rack marked “New Arrivals.” “Aw man, look at this, nothing but country! Oh no, my mistake, they do have the new Boyz II Men. Weren’t you waiting for that to come out?”

“Shut up. I keep telling you you’re never going to find any decent music at Wal-Mart. Of course it’s all country! It’s a small town, it’s Wisconsin and it’s fucking Wal-Mart!”

“I know, I know, but it’s not like there’s any other option in this fuckin’ town.”

“Preachin’ to the choir, brotha. Why else am I getting my afterschool kicks hanging at Wal-Mart? Y’know, it’s a hard life, being a latchkey kid…” She stuck out her bottom lip in a mock pout and dabbed imaginary tears from her mascara-rimmed eyes.

Shawn grabbed a Shania Twain album from the rack and scowled. “Man, she’s lucky she’s so hot or else nobody would be buying this shit.”

“Really? You think Shania Twain is hot?”

“Oh, hell yeah! You ever seen her videos? If you put ‘em on mute they’re the best thing on TV. I mean, that girl’s got a body!”

Sadie’s own skinny, near-breastless frame stiffened involuntarily. She made a quick move to change the subject. “Look, it’s not all country and Boyz II Men. They’ve got the censored version of Warren G. Nothin’ more fun than censored rap, lemme tell ya!”

“Rap sucks,” Shawn mumbled, turning to leave the electronics alcove.

Sadie growled at the homemade anarchy logo scrawled across the back of his black hoodie. “Y’know Shawn, if you weren’t so cute, you might really piss me off. The world doesn’t start and stop with punk. You should give some other things a try. I mean, you talk shit about country all the time and I agree, Garth Brooks deserves to die, but have you ever listened to Johnny Cash? He’s the fuckin’ coolest!”

“Country sucks.”

Sadie exhaled loudly through her nose, her nostril piercing whistling a little. She had decided weeks ago that she had to take action to get Shawn to put something other than that same damned Misfits tape in his cassette deck, but so far nothing was working. How could such a great guitarist be so ignorant about music?

A little Mexican girl with her face smeared with what appeared to be ketchup looked up from the skein of turquoise yarn she was rolling around the grimy tiled floor and stared incredulously at Sadie’s studded eyebrow and bright green buzzcut. Sadie locked eyes with her for a few seconds, then gave her best Sid Vicious snarl. The girl turned and ran, abandoning the yarn in the middle of the aisle. Sadie chuckled a bit.

“What are you doing? C’mon, keep up with me here!” Shawn called from down the aisle. Sadie huffed and shuffled toward him in an exaggerated slouch.

Sorry, Dad, but it’s my sworn duty to frighten small children and house pets.” Shawn rolled his eyes and made a move toward the home furnishings department. “What’s with you today, anyway?” Sadie asked. “It’s not like you’re gonna see anything you didn’t see last Tuesday.”

“I just don’t feel much like dicking around today, okay?”

Sadie glared at the back of his head. He hadn’t bothered to spike his Mohawk today and his dirty blonde hair flopped in ragged strips on either side of his shaved scalp. She was unexpectedly bothered by his sloppiness. At times like this she could almost see her mother’s point when she asked why Sadie was wasting her time with this loser, but what her mom couldn’t understand was how tough it was to be an original in this fucking town. She’d been asked out by better looking guys than Shawn, smarter guys, but no way in hell was she going to bother with some boring dipshit who wore tucked-in Packers t-shirts and spent every weekend drinking warm Old Style in the woods somewhere, listening to Stone Temple Pilots or Soundgarden or whoever MTV told him was the kick-ass band for this week. It wasn’t like Reinhart High’s pool of Alternateens, as the jocks called her kind, was exactly teeming, and Shawn was as good a catch as any. Maybe he was going nowhere, but at least he’d be making some interesting pit stops along the way. And have better traveling music, if she could ever get him to change that Misfits tape.

They walked along the miscellaneous household electronics display, a jumble of steel gray and kitchen counter white punctuated by Wal-Mart’s trademark neon green price stickers. A neatly stacked row of indoor/outdoor thermometers reminded Sadie of a bit of trivia she’d been saving for just this occasion. “I read somewhere that the thermostats for all the Wal-Marts in the country are controlled by a big board at the home office in Arkansas, so they can make sure none of the stores are spending too much on heating or air conditioning. Isn’t that kinda scary?”

“Yup, that’s probably the scariest thermostat story I ever heard,” Shawn yawned.

They moved into home furnishings and Sadie paused before the display of bathroom mirrors. She thrust her chest out in a Madonna “Vogue” pose and ran her fingers through her shocking green stubble. She gave herself the usual self-assessment: pretty face, she couldn’t deny that, but the hair and mascara made her repulsive to most of the right people. She was a little disappointed at how pale and skinny her arms looked protruding from her black Violent Femmes tee, but overall it was a decent enough package. She rolled her head seductively in Shawn’s direction, but he was already moving on.

Sadie began to wonder if something really was up if he didn’t even want to goof on the mirrors. She spun the cold handle on one of the model bathroom sinks as she hurried past, growing increasingly frustrated with Shawn’s speedy pace. This was turning out to be the worst Wal-Mart Tuesday in the three months since they’d established the tradition.

They stepped out into the main aisle, past a redneck couple in matching jean jackets squabbling over motor oil. “Hey, did you need any help with your homework tonight?” Sadie asked. She’d been unofficially tutoring Shawn in English since they’d started dating. Even though he was a junior and she a sophomore, most of the stuff covered in his Remedial English class was review for her, and anyway, he wasn’t going to graduate without her help.

“Naw, she just wants us to read the next act of the Shakespeare thing. I can do that when I get home.” Sadie made a mental note to read it herself, knowing full well that he wouldn’t. She started to ask if he had any review sheets due, but saw that Shawn was inextricably absorbed in a display of new Star Wars action figures under a banner trumpeting Wal-Mart’s policy of Rolling Back Prices.

Sadie sighed. “If you’re going to be playing with your spacemen, I’ll be over in the cheap toy section.” He mumbled something incoherent and she moved on a couple of aisles. She felt a little rush at the sight of the cheerfully disorganized bins of bouncy balls and generic knock-offs of popular toys. This was her favorite section in the whole store. It reminded her of the Island of Misfit Toys from that old Claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie.

“Who ever heard of a Charlie-in-the-box?” she quoted as she examined an expressionless nude doll strapped to a horrible pink cardboard backing. “Katy Playdoll” read the plain block letters over her plastic prison. “Must live in the trailer park behind Barbie’s Dreamhouse,” Sadie mused, then wished Shawn were next to her so she could say it aloud. She gave one of the pale pink bouncy balls a few dribbles, then snatched it up and nonchalantly tossed it over the partition, hoping to hit Shawn two aisles over. She heard it rattle harmlessly against some boxes in the next aisle and was mildly disappointed. She picked up another box and wondered why any kid would blow six bucks on a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger when he could get a Fearless Fightin’ Galaxy Warrior for seventy-five cents. This one had so much more character. He was clad in a dull orange bodysuit with a dark blue helmet, the jumper littered with random science-y looking panels and buttons. His head was noticeably disproportionate to his body, probably because he was assembled from whatever surplus heads and torsos the plant had laying around. Plastered on his chest for no reason Sadie could discern was a smiling cartoon frog. “Not the image I’d choose for intergalactic peacekeeping, but whatever gets it up for ya, Jack,” she thought. Shawn came around the corner with a Star Wars figure cradled in his arms.

“Oh God. Which one is it this time?” Sadie asked. He held up the box and showed her the shiny white figure under the plastic. “I thought you already had the Storm Trooper.”

“Yeah, the regular one, but this is the Storm Trooper in Hoth battle gear!”

Sadie gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Mm-hm, of course it is. Well, if you’re getting a Storm Trooper in snow pants, you’re buying me this too.” She waved the Fearless Fightin’ Galaxy Warrior in his face. Shawn grimaced.

“What the hell is this? This is just a Power Rangers rip-off. I don’t think this is even a show. Look, he has a fuckin’ frog on his chest!”

“Don’t badmouth Jerome. I like him and he’s only seventy-five cents.”

“Jerome? You mean his name’s not Howie?”

“No, old men are named Howie. Space warriors are named Jerome, after Jerome in Purple Rain.” She nodded matter-of-factly.

“Prince sucks.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Did you have to do anything else here? ‘Cause I’d like to be in my room for the five o’clock Simpsons.”

“Yeah, I just wanted to look at one more thing,” Shawn replied, looking away as he spoke.

They headed past Lawn & Garden toward the checkout, Sadie making Jerome’s box fly in zig-zags over her head while she made explosion noises with her mouth. A fat man in overalls looked up from a length of hose and Sadie launched a couple of warning shots in his direction. “Right over here,” Shawn said quietly, pointing to the pharmaceutical section.

“Aw c’mon, Shawn! I told you, it’s not healthy to go through more than three enemas a day!” Sadie declared loud enough that a thick-necked woman to her right gave Shawn a suspicious glance.

Shawn flushed and chuckled uneasily. “Shut up, I really have to look at something here.”

Sadie smiled innocently. She picked up a bottle of multi-vitamins and began shaking them rhythmically. “Hey, check it out! ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’! Ay! Oh! Let’s go!” she chanted, bobbing her head to her own beat. Shawn didn’t react. Sadie shoved the bottle back on the wrong shelf and said, “Okay, really, what’s up with you today?”

Shawn sucked his lips in and made a quick move with his eyes. Sadie frowned. He nodded his head slightly in the direction of one of the racks. Sadie was starting to get pissed. “Are you trying to tell me Timmy fell down the well again? C’mon, say something!”

Shawn sighed and jerked his thumb at the rack. “Whattaya think?” he whispered.

Sadie followed his gesture. He was pointing at the condom display.

“Oh.” Her cheeks were suddenly burning. She looked up at him in confusion.

“I mean… It’s not like I’m saying we have to use ‘em this minute or anything, it’s just… Well, we’re gonna need ‘em eventually, right?”

“Oh… Yeah… Okay.” At the top of the rack a beaming smiley face on a tagboard placard announced “Always Low Prices.”

“I mean, I just figured it’s better to get some now than to not have any when we do need ‘em, right?”

“Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” She tried to sound confident, but her brain was still struggling to process the implications of the question. It wasn’t the first time Shawn had brought up their eventual consummation, but she’d never given him much of a response, half-hoping he’d just forget about it eventually. The only time they’d gotten beyond what her youth pastor used to call “heavy petting” was a couple of weekends back, in his car in the Dairy Queen parking lot, when she’d allowed him five minutes or so of fumbling under her unbuttoned corduroys. It had been mostly just sticky and awkward, and she’d been relieved when the headlights of a passing car made him lose his nerve not long after his index finger made its first uncomfortable penetration.

After a long pause, Shawn asked, “So, uh, you have any preference?”

Sadie just looked at him for a few seconds, then realized the question required some action on her part. She turned back to the rack. It was a blur of colors and letters, a gobbledygook of dirty-sounding words: ribbed, studded, lubricated. She knew that she knew what all of those words meant, but nothing was registering.

“Um, how about these?” She pointed to a blue box of Trojans with spermicide, just because it was the most familiar brand name to her.

“Okay. Great.” He snatched the box from its hook. Sadie watched in mute horror as he let it dangle at his side for any random Wal-Mart shopper to see. “Okay! Well, I guess we should get you home now.” He was trying hard to sound casual, but Sadie heard a slight tremor in his voice.

They trudged to the checkout in silence and got in line behind a massive Mexican woman with two kids in tow. Sadie recognized the little girl she’d menaced earlier. The child glanced up at her and quickly ducked behind her mother’s flabby leg. Sadie looked away and set Jerome on the conveyor belt as Shawn plunked down the Storm Trooper and the Trojans with a horrifying nonchalance. The bird-faced woman at the register mumbled her rote “Good afternoon, are you interested in applying for a Wal-Mart Visa card?” Ordinarily Sadie loved having this clerk because she always glared disgustedly at Sadie’s Technicolor hairstyle while Sadie stared right back at her pisspoor orange dye job, but today she pretended to flip through an Archie comic to avoid the gaze. Sadie’s stomach was churning. What if someone from school came in? She was surprised to feel hot tears welling up behind her eyes. She steeled her jaw and forced them down, the rest of the transaction not even registering on her senses.

“Ready?” Shawn asked. Sadie wordlessly tucked the comic back in its rack. On the way out through the sliding doors to the lobby it was Shawn who talked incessantly. “Man, did you see the look that old bitch gave me? It’s not like I was buying a fuckin’ gun or anything. Shit, if I was she’d probably wanna swap hunting stories. Fuck. How is it her business anyway?”

Sadie glanced back as they stepped outside. Howie was still at his post, waving mindlessly to an oblivious couple that looked to be about his own age.

Shawn paused to light a Camel. “I ever tell you about the first time I bought condoms? I came here with Dylan. He’d just started going with Ellen Blanco, so you know he needed some rubbers! Anyway, we each get a box and get in line and who’s just taking over the fuckin’ register but fuckin’ T.J. Pryor.”

“The retarded kid?” Sadie asked reflexively.

“No, that’s J.D. Mauer. T.J. Pryor, the asshole wrestler guy. So we each put down our money and he rings us up and he doesn’t say anything until he hands us our bags and then he winks and says, ‘You boys have a real nice weekend together.’ Motherfucker! I was nervous enough already, I coulda choked his ass right there. Shoulda told his manager, that shit’ll get you fired at Wal-Mart.”

Sadie giggled politely, wishing he had opted to make this purchase with Dylan as well. Shawn flicked his butt into the bed of a gigantic red pickup. He kept on chattering as they climbed into his rusty Escort. Sadie thought he sounded relieved. She cringed a little as he turned the key and the engine roared to life in sync with the opening chords of “Ghouls Night Out” yet again.

“Sorry if that was all a little weird,” Shawn yammered as they pulled onto the highway. “I just thought we should be covered for whenever it happens, y’know? It gets easier, too. I was scared shitless when I bought my first box, but when I went back like a month later it was no problem.” Sadie did a quick calculation: one month to use all twelve condoms? “Yeah, it’s no big deal, really. Some girls even prefer to buy ‘em themselves. Carmen always did when I was with her. Shit, when I dated Erica her mom used to bring home a big bag full from the hospital and pass ‘em out to her daughters!” Sadie closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window. Ordinarily she hated being reminded of the long list of skanks Shawn had dated, but today she just felt numb. They rode the five minutes to her house in silence, save for the tinny rattle of the Misfits blaring from the dashboard speakers.

In her room that night, Sadie lay on her bed, listening to The Smiths and staring at a classroom edition of Julius Caesar. Her efforts at tackling act two were not bearing fruit. For the fifteenth time in five minutes she read “Between the acting of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.” The archaic words sounded nice, but they meant nothing. Roman togas and bloody knives battled with Trojan condoms and dirty hoodies for control of her thoughts.

She tossed the book to the corner by her backpack and fished under the bed for the Wal-Mart bag. She pulled out Jerome, still fortified in his packaging. Sadie stared at the toy for a moment, then ripped open the box and freed him from his confinement. He was heavier than she’d expected, and his arms and legs creaked in protest when she swiveled them back and forth. She flew him around over her head a little, made him attack the Ramones poster next to the bed. “Pa-kow! Pa-kow!” he menaced Marky and Dee Dee, who made no effort to retaliate.

Sadie sighed and set Jerome on the nightstand. She undressed sitting down, tossing her clothing piece by piece in a heap next to the bed. She rolled over and switched off the lamp, then lay flat on her back, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark starscape spread across her ceiling. “I’m going to have sex,” she thought resignedly. “I’m going to have sex with Shawn.” She felt the same onrush of tears that had threatened in the checkout line and again forced them back down. She was suddenly aware of her nudity and quickly yanked the covers tightly over her body. She lay shivering under the sheets and trying to shove aside the Bible verses and grainy images from Health class videos that kept muscling their way into her brain. After ten minutes or so, she reached over to the nightstand again and groped in the dark until she found Jerome. She folded him in her hands and pulled him close to her chest, closing her eyes as she pressed the hard plastic into her skin until it hurt.

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