My hands reek of Calamine when I pay the cashier. She smells it, too, from the look in her eyes as I grab the tub of potato salad off the counter. It’s cool in my Calamine-soaked hands.
When I get to my car, I’m thinking about my mother. She made sure I understood from an early age that a lady expects the unexpected so she can handle whatever comes at her. She said it so much that it should have been tattooed across the pale, bruised skin on her inner forearm. I can imagine black script flowing as clearly as those words ring in my head.
So it doesn’t faze me that my hands reek of Calamine or that I’m heading back to Billy’s with a tub of potato salad. Expect the unexpected, right?
Billy came through my checkout aisle this afternoon with a slab of ribs and the huge grin he always has on his face when he’s behind the meat counter. Like he’s the happiest guy on Earth despite his blood-spattered smock and working in a refrigerator.
“You ever do ribs?”
I told him I wouldn’t know how.
“Come over,” he said. “We’ll grill and chill.”
I figured why not? He seemed cool.
I showed up to a tropical garden scene in his front yard. Dozens of plants and bushes I could never name, everything green and vibrant. That was neat, but it made the scene in his backyard kinda odd. There was nothing back there but dead scrub grass, a small concrete patio, a grill, and Billy on a chaise lounge puffing a joint.
He offered me a hit. I shook my head. “S’all right,” he said. “It’s all about the ribs anyhow.”
He had the ribs on a platter. He handed me a shaker full of red powder and said to sprinkle it. I did, and then I watched him massage it into the pork. I liked how he was confident with his hands but also gentle, like he was rubbing a cat’s belly. I kept sprinkling, and he kept rubbing until the ribs were rust colored.
He laid the ribs on the grill and said it was gonna be a couple of hours. He got a lawn chair for me. Then he sat in his chaise lounge and rolled another joint with weed he pulled out of his pocket.
Flies and mosquitoes buzzed around him. He couldn’t swat them very well. “They usually don’t like smoke,” he said. “But look at the bastards.” I wasn’t sure if he meant smoke from the grill or his joint. Neither was helping him.
He went inside and came back with a bottle of Calamine. “You mind?” he asked.
I didn’t. He was nice enough to make dinner. Besides, his calves and ankles looked like a bas-relief map. Just looking at them made me itch.
You don’t smoke?” he asked as I shook the bottle. “It’s mellow. I got plenty if you change your mind.”
He fully reclined the chaise. I squirted his calves and ankles and rubbed for a few minutes. He made some mmmm sounds like I imagined he’d make when we ate the ribs.
This was supposed to be about the ribs, but I wanted to see where it would go. I squirted more Calamine and rubbed until I felt friction. He had to feel that, but all he said was to go as high up his legs as I wanted.
Who am I to let weed bother me? I’ve never done drugs. I was thinking how self-soothing escalates to self-medicating and how that escalates to something else and then something else until whatever you’re doing pretty much has the opposite effect of what you started doing. That’s a lot to think about with ribs on the grill. But there I was. My mother kept coke in the sugar canister. Harder stuff in the flour canister. I could never have my friends over to bake cookies. I’d go to their houses and hope for a sleepover.
I rubbed until there was so much friction that I worried about chafing and making the Calamine pointless. Billy didn’t say anything. Then I realized he was asleep.
I sat there as the sun set and wondered if he had any snacks or drinks. When I got up to look in his kitchen, he stirred. He looked confused, like he couldn’t remember why I was there.
It must have come to him because he said he forgot potato salad. “Would you mind?” he said. “I got money.” He pulled the weed out of his pocket and seemed surprised to be looking at it. Finally, he told me, “I’ll pay you back.”
I return to Billy’s house in the absolute dark. My headlights are the only source of illumination, so I leave them on.
A sprinkler clicks and hisses as I walk around back. The backyard is empty except for the smell of pork cooking over hot coals. The screen door leading into the kitchen is hanging open. The whole house is dark except for a light on the second floor that goes out as soon as I see it.
I could go in the house and get plates and grill tools, but I don’t like the idea of fumbling in the dark in a strange kitchen.
The meat sizzles on the coals. Smoke seeps out of the air vents on the grill lid and drifts through the dimly lit night air. Otherwise, it’s nothing but crickets back here, like a punchline that fell flat. Which I guess makes this whole scene a joke.
I head back to my apartment. I scoop potato salad out of the tub and lick it off my fingers as I drive. I’m thinking about my mother again and wondering how well I’m handling all this.
is a graduate of the Northwestern University writing program. His writing has been published in The Baseball Research Journal, Imitation Fruit, BULL: Men’s Fiction, KYSO Flash, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Mount Hope, Soliloquies Anthology, Third Wednesday, and Dislocate. He was judged a winner of the First Memorial George Dila Flash Fiction Contest, and his nonfiction writing A Familiar Problem, a Familiar Face was recognized by Mensa as Best Unpublished Novel.
Mr. Burd lives in Gurnee, Illinois, where he spends his time exercising, reading, writing, working in the kitchen, and watching Tottenham Hotspur. He works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.
Get, flash fiction in Burningwood Literary Journal (July 2020);
see also Jeff Burd’s commentary in his blog, The Seeker (29 July 2020):
Double Your Pleasure
⚡ For the Love of Practice: Chatting with Jeff Burd About Baseball, Hybrids, and High Altitude Inspiration by Nancy Stohlman in Flash Fiction Retreats (8 April 2019)