I’M RUNNING. It’s only the second week of May, and already, the heat is getting oppressive. It’s supposed to be ninety by noon and climbing. The weather forecast said we might break a record today. I’m wearing nothing but my running shoes, a pair of low-cut socks and red athletic shorts, yet I feel like the heat has fallen on me like a wet blanket. I shouldn’t have gotten drunk last night, should have got a better night’s sleep. I should have done a lot of things different. I’m thinking, maybe I shouldn’t have joined a fraternity.
Running up Caddo Hill, the steepest hill in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and my lungs are burning, sweat pouring down my face, stinging my eyes. The air is uncharacteristically calm, and for the first time in a long time I get off my pace, start dragging my feet. I can hear the souls of my shoes sticking to the asphalt, and I’m thinking about walking the last mile of my planned course when I see a white and pink Suzuki Samurai cresting the hill. I recognize the driver, Holly Holcomb.
I’m surprised when Holly slows down, edging her Samurai toward my side of the road. She has some music playing real loud, Under Pressure by that guy from Queen and David Bowie.
“You look hot,” she says.
She’s doesn’t sound turned on, just concerned. I stop running and walk toward her, grateful for the excuse to rest. I get a stitch of pain in my right side and want to lean forward, hands on my knees, but I don’t want to appear weak. Instead, I put my hands behind my head and arch backwards, flexing my abdominal muscles, showing off my trim waist. I stop a few feet from the Samurai when I get a whiff of my overwhelming odor.
“You sure do run a lot,” Holly says.
“Yep,” I reply. I’m trying to suppress my labored breathing. “I run… ev-ry day.”
Holly smiles. She has clean, even teeth, bright white. Her lips are full but not thick, perfect. I like the way she pulls her hair back into a bushy ponytail and the way she ties a blue scarf in a knot, like Madonna. She’s wearing a tank top with thin, white shoulder straps plunging toward her breasts. She turns toward me, her right breast nudging the steering wheel.
“You want some water?”
I can only nod. She tosses me a bottle of cold water she gets from a cooler in her back seat. I open the bottle and drink gratefully.
“I really admire your commitment,” Holly says. “What you did last night took some courage.”
Yeah, last night, I’m thinking. Shit, last night…
I was getting ready for work when Mick and Jimmy got back from Juarez. They left last Tuesday afternoon just after finishing their final exams, bragging about going on a road trip to blow off some steam, to get laid. The guys had gathered on the expansive front porch of the Phi Delta Phi House, a large two-story house with red bricks and white trim a block south of campus. They greeted our prodigal brothers with a twelve pack of Schafer’s beer. God, Schafer’s beer, the guys must be low on money to be drinking that cheap shit.
Mick reclined against a brick column on the porch, opened a can of beer and drank deep, grimaced. “This shit’s warm,” he said, but he took another drink, anyway. Mick wasn’t the kind to waste beer, no matter how bad it was.
He was a handsome guy, perfect hair, dark eyes, and suave. I didn’t understand why he went looking for whores down in Juarez when he could get almost any girl he wanted here on campus.
Jimmy laughed, nudged Mick with his elbow. “This guy is my hero. He’s a machine.” Jimmy was Mick’s little brother, his obnoxious protégé, but he wasn’t as good looking, not bad really, just ordinary with light brown hair, a thin face and an average build.
“Shut up,” Mick said.
“My friend, my brother, Mick - he screwed three women in one hour, went and had a couple of cerveses, and screwed two more.”
“And the next night he went and did the same, ten women in one weekend. Like I said, he’s a machine.”
The guys laughed, a mixture of oos and ahs, impressed and disbelieving. Someone said, “Bullshit.” I think it was Rodney.
Mick shrugged it off, guzzled some more beer. He tossed me a can. “You’re not drinking. What’s your problem?”
I set the can of beer on the rail of bricks surrounding the porch. “Can’t,” I said. “I’m on my way to work.”
I thought that would’ve been obvious since I was wearing my Kentucky Fried Chicken uniform: brown pants and beige shirt, a dorky brown visor with a red KFC emblazoned on the bill.
Mick smiled, crunched the already empty can of beer in his right hand. “Good, then you’ll be bringing home some dinner.”
I nodded. “I hope so. Depends on what’s left over.”
“C’mon, Chicken Man, you can make some extra, take care of your brothers, right?”
Yeah, Chicken Man – the stupid nickname my fraternity brothers gave me during initiation because I shared my take-home leftovers with them. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll do what I can.”
Jimmy continued bragging about their adventure south of the border. “Then we went to a live sex show, watched this donkey and this girl… God, its dick had to be this long.” He held his hands about two feet apart.
I didn’t want to hear the rest, so I tied to hustle past the guys without further comment. Jimmy grabbed my arm and made me stand fast.
“Listen up,” he announced. “I’m nominating our esteemed brother, Mick, for the Back in the Saddle Again Award.”
The guys clapped their hands, enthusiastic hoots and hollers.
The Back in the Saddle Again award was given to the fraternity member who had the most adventurous or the most numerous sexual exploits in a given academic year. Mick had already won the award two times, and judging by his exploits in Juarez, he was angling for an unprecedented third year in a row.
Mick stood up, took a bow and kind of limped toward the front door of the house. He grabbed his crotch and winced. “When I get back, I’ll tell y’all about the bitch who gave me the clap.”
Rodney drove me to work. He has a 1969 Chevy Chevelle, red with black racing stripes. It’s jacked up in the back and has chrome wheels, big tires with white letters. The engine sounded ferocious, no purring there, more like a long predatory growl.
We share a bedroom in the back of the house. He sleeps in a king size waterbed while I have a twin bed stuck halfway into a closet, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I set up my stereo on some shelves in there, and when Rodney brings a girl into the room, I put on some headphones and listen to music so I don’t have to hear their moans and groans while they’re having sex. Rodney’s also my fraternity big brother, one of my closest friends. He’s a pharmacy student and a basketball player, an all American guy complete with a boyish, freckled face. He’s always telling me I need to get laid.
“The guys are worried,” he said. “They’re starting to wonder about you.”
“What?” I ask, but I think I already know the answer.
“They’re talking. They think you might be gay.”
I didn’t respond. Anger churned inside me, the injustice of it all. How could they worry about me being gay when they think what Mick did to that pledge last fall was just all in fun? Mick had a drinking contest with a pledge downstairs in basement of our house. We called it the titty room because we had a big painting of at least a dozen bare-breasted, Romanesque women down there. It also served as a room where we had our initiation rites. Anyway, Mick had convinced this pledge to give him a blowjob, told him it was a rite of passage, and the poor drunken guy fell for it. After that, the pledge was labeled a fag and didn’t make it into the fraternity, but everyone thought Mick was still cool. It didn’t make sense to me.
Rodney stopped at the red light at Main and Custer. Weatherford was one of the largest towns in Western Oklahoma, but it felt small to me. I had been raised in Oklahoma City, was used to going miles and miles before coming to the edge of civilization. I stared south along Custer, past the Tautfest Furniture and Appliance gallery, past some warehouses and barns out into the wide expanse of wheat starting to turn gold, almost ready for the harvest. I wanted to be running out there, feeling the wind, smelling the wheat, hearing nothing but my breathing and the rhythmic pounding of my feet on asphalt. It was the closest thing to bliss for me.
“Hey, Jeff, you okay?”
I nodded. The light turned green and Rodney swung a left going east on Main through downtown Weatherford, past several motel complexes, The Taco Factory, Hardees and Wal-Mart.
“Rodney, I need to tell you something.”
His eyes got big, and he had an uncertain smile on his face. Rodney was a handsome guy, probably the most handsome guy in the fraternity with smoldering brown eyes and light brown hair. He had an air of class, of dignity and discipline. He often wore slacks, seersucker shirts and a sport jacket. Some of the guys liked to call him Otter after that character in the movie Animal House. His father was a colonel in the field artillery down in Ft. Sill, and Rodney had been raised a military brat, had attended boarding schools. He was smart and cultured, so I thought I could trust him with my secret.
“When I was in high school,” I began, hesitantly. “I made a promise to stay celibate until I got married.”
Rodney exhaled forcefully. I hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. “That’s it?” he said jubilantly. “That’s your big secret?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“No shit, wow. I thought you were going to tell me you were gay. Man, what a trip.”
We were at the intersection of Main and Washington. Going east from there was the onramp to I-40 heading back to Oklahoma City. The Kentucky Fried Chicken was near the exit ramp just north of the intersection, a good location that brought lots of road business. We stayed pretty busy.
“So, you’re a virgin.” Rodney said. His eyes got big again. “Wow, how do you do it?”
“I run a lot,” I admitted.
Rodney nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, you do. Holy shit, you could run all day.” Then he kind of frowned. “Why’d you join a fraternity then?” He asked this like he was accusing me of something.
“For the brotherhood, the comradery,” I said. Those were the official reasons to join a fraternity, I knew, but they were really the reasons I joined. I loved hanging out with the guys, playing Hacky Sack out in front of the house, playing a pickup game of tag football, the meeting rituals, the initiation rites. I was hoping my membership in a fraternity would benefit me all my life, to be part of a brotherhood of men who had a common bond.
Rodney laughed. “Bullshit. That’s what you’re supposed to say. You’re not a pledge anymore, Jeff.”
“Man, I feel sorry for you. I’ll bet you masturbate all the time.”
I shook my head.
“Well, fuck me,” Rodney mused. Then he turned toward me. “Well, not literally, I mean. Just kidding you know.”
“I’m not gay.”
“I know. I know. Just celibate.”
My boss, Bob, is a guy who quit high school, started working at a KFC, worked his way up to manager, then got a loan and bought a franchise. He’s pretty well off, drives a nice car, one of those brand new Nissan Pathfinders, but he’s not much to look at, pudgy and balding with a ridiculous mustache thick enough to be a hair brush. He thinks I ought to be one mean motor scooter when it comes to girls, and I guess I could be, but I made a promise.
The evening shift was pretty slow, and Bob kept hanging around the kitchen, talking to me, cracking jokes.
“There’s this guy,” he said. “He goes to a whore house, and all the hookers laugh at him because he has the word ‘Shorty’ tattooed on his dick. The madam takes pity on him, offers a free ride and takes him to her boudoir where they have a romping good time. Afterwards, she looks worn out, a complete mess. When the other hookers ask what happened she replies, “When I got that guy hard his tattoo said, ‘Shorty’s Bar and Grill Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
Bob laughed like crazy, his belly shaking, drool clinging to his mustache. I got the joke, but it didn’t seem funny to me, so I faked a laugh to avoid offending my boss. I don’t think he bought it, though, and he looked at me like I was some kind of freak in a freak show.
“What’s the matter, Jeff, too raunchy for you? Too dirty for your virgin ears?”
When he said the word virgin, I bit my lip. I didn’t want to say something stupid. I needed that job. I wasn’t rich. I didn’t have a car. I was going to school on a drama scholarship, and though that paid for my tuition and books, it didn’t pay for room and board and other living expenses. Plus, though Bob gave me a lot of shit about women and sex, he was a pretty cooperative boss, altering my hours to accommodate me when I got a part in a university play. He even came to my plays, sometimes.
“I liked the joke,” I said.
Bob frowned. “Are you sure you’re not queer? Not that there’s anything wrong with that you know.” He raised his right hand to show sincerity. “Some of my best friends are gay.”
I thought, yeah right, and I walked over to the Original Recipe preparation table. I was starting to run low on flour, had enough for another batch of chicken, maybe. What was left had a lot of doughy clumps. I started sifting the flour, glad to have something to do. When I finished sifting the flour, I took the screen from the bottom of the table and dumped the clumps into a trash can. Bob came up behind me, grabbed my ass. I jumped. I might have spun around, hit him in the face with an elbow, but my hands were full. I managed not to drop the sifter, but I slipped in a pool of grease, stumbled backward. Bob caught me, held me a little too long.
“I knew you’d fall for me someday,” he said.
I went rigid, excited yet mortified. What the hell was this all about? My mind raged with conflicting emotions, gratified by Bob’s touch yet horrified about what it could mean. I twisted away from him and went back to the freezer. I stood there in the cold for a long time, letting it wash over me. I even jogged in place for awhile, pretending I was running through an arctic night, my feet crunching on the tundra. It calmed me down. Then I grabbed a couple bags of chicken, walked back to the kitchen, dumped them into the tub of flour and started breading the various pieces: wings, legs, thighs and breasts. I arranged them on the fry basket making sure they were spaced far enough apart to keep the breading from fusing the pieces together while they cooked. After that I placed the fry basket into the deep vat of cooking grease, shut the lid on the pressure cooker and set the timer for fifteen minutes.
Bob had returned to the front counter, was waiting on a young woman who had ordered a two piece dinner and a Coke. She had long blond hair, wore glasses – not the kind that detract from a woman’s looks, but the kind that accentuate her intelligence, enhance her mystery. I recognized her. She and I had a class together last fall, Sociology with Dr. Wright.
There was still a lot of chicken in the warmer, a big glass rectangle with heating lamps. We probably already had more than we needed to get through the next hour of business. After Bob finished waiting on the young woman, he came back to the kitchen again, laughing like nothing had happened between us.
“Boy, that chick was a fox,” he said, showing his age. “I’d fuck her in a heartbeat.”
I washed my hands in the sink along the back wall of the kitchen, started to fill the sink with hot water, getting prepared for the closing cleanup. I sprinkled some detergent in the water, watched the bubbles grow and grow, mounting higher and higher. I could see my face reflected in some of the larger bubbles, a myriad of images, perspectives and distortions, all of them me. Then I wondered which one of them was the real me.
The pressure cooker started to whistle, expelling steam like a tea pot.
“Did you just put down another basket of Original?” Bob asked, agitated.
I turned around, faced him.
“We’re closing in forty-five minutes. We don’t need any more chicken.”
by Joe Reese
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