This was in grad school when my apartment was the first floor of a house next to a man who became newly convinced every night around 3 AM that someone was setting him on fire. He screamed the same guttural scream over and over, and the fire truck rolled up because he called them, so they had to. The man’s apartment occupied the back of a pink stucco house, which, though entirely in decay, was somehow also a little hopeful and wistful because of the pink. I liked looking at it from the bay window in my apartment’s living room, though less so at 3 AM when the firefighters landed their boots in my rectangle of vegetable garden and the man who thought he was being set on fire was flat on the grass and his screams subsided and then the firefighters guided him to his screen door with its scroll-work iron S that likely once meant something to someone.
My boyfriend at the time was a poet who was obsessed with NWA, experimental lit, and mopey Indie music. He liked to think of himself as a vanguard, and I’m not sure why it took me two years to see through that, but it did. We shared an office in a row of grad student offices, and every Friday, our creative writing professors yelled the same thing to us: buy all the whiskey, we’re coming, so we took donations in workshop until we had a bag of quarters and people’s server dollars in wads. We lined bottles up on the kitchen counter, and I smacked dead all the cockroaches I could with a magazine and dropped it in the recycling, and my boyfriend said, are cockroach carcasses recyclable, and I said, ha fucking ha, and Will Oldham, that whiny pontificating fuck, sang about something bleak and rural, and I said, oh, music to slit your wrists to, and the boyfriend turned it off and started blasting Fuck Da Police, and I fell down on the kitchen floor in my best dramatic gesture just because.
I was 22 and pregnant but just ten weeks. I thought I was probably supposed to be envisioning knit hats to fit a head the size of a grapefruit, but I was not. Instead, I did two shots of cheap whiskey. I was only a few years out from thinking Schnapps in quantity was a good idea, and whiskey was enough somehow to make me feel urbane and maybe even consequential.
When it got dark, everyone showed up and stayed too late like they always did. It had been ten years since either of the professors had published a book, and they didn’t have anything better. They stayed until we had moved the kitchen table out into the side yard, and someone was reading aloud from Jesus’ Son, and one of the professors, the woman who was too thin and around the age of my mother but more fun said, “You know, I had a thing with him once, Denis Johnson,” and we all oohed and then she pulled a jalapeno pepper straight from the plant in the garden, and ate it until it made her cry, and then said, “No, actually, really I didn’t. I didn’t. But I should have. I could have.” And then the man next door in the pink house came tumbling out of his S-branded screen door yelling, “Fire! Fire!” and my boyfriend and I carried the table back inside and everyone went home.
In the morning, I am still a little drunk at the clinic and someone puts a poster with a picture of a fetus up in my face and for a second all I can think of is that I want to offer my design services to him because really the quality of the poster is low, sub-par. I lock eyes with the man who is older than my father, and stand there for a minute trying to think of the best thing to say to shut him down, to make him crumble, but nothing perfect comes, and then my boyfriend pulls me through the outer doors and toward the inner doors where there’s a burst of air that makes us feel like we’ve left one biosphere and are entering another. Would I some day when I’m older and actually have two children be sad about tiny Jane or Beatrice or Oscar who could have been but wasn’t? No. I didn’t think I would. I was at a time in my life when I could barely look in the mirror and think of one not hateful thing to say to myself about myself. Having a child was as implausible as fins.
On the way home from the clinic, there’s a woman at an intersection with a box full of dogs, baby pit bulls which up until now I’ve loathed and been scared of. We pull into the gas station parking lot where she’s set up shop and is also selling tomatoes, and we leave with both: a puppy and a plastic bag of tomatoes even though I’m already overrun with tomatoes and can’t even give them away. At the apartment, the puppy eats cockroaches and shreds paper. Abortion Dog we call her at first which is unfunny and not our best effort but then three drinks later we call her Baby, which is also stupid but better. Here Baby. Fetch Baby. She nips at our feet on the hour all night until at 3 AM, the firefighters show up, and we let Baby out the door. The man who thinks he’s on fire but never is lies back on the dirt in between rows of peppers and cucumbers and Baby goes up to him and makes herself into an apostrophe around his head, curves to him and stays until he stops screaming. When the firefighters take him back in through the screen door, it is in with him that she goes.
AmyStuber is a fiction writer living in Kansas. She’s published work most recently in American Short Fiction, The Southampton Review, Wigleaf, The Chattahoochee Review, Arts & Letters, Split Lip, and Cheap Pop. She reads flash fiction for Split Lip. Find her online at www.amystuber.com or on Twitter at amy_stuber_.
Artwork by: Aurélien Bomy