Chapter 2 ~ Pathetic

Liseli arrived home at nine thirty, after walking slowly through town in the gray dusk.  The grease, grime, sweat and food residue of the day still clung to her body and clothing, as if she’d been wallowing in cooking oil all day long.  Which, come to think of it, pretty much does sum it up . . . .  She looked forward to a shower, even though it could only go so far in washing out the smell.  She hoped Craig wasn’t there tonight.  She hated taking showers when one of Mom’s boyfriends was around.  Fiancé.  Husband.  Ex.  Whatever.  She should really move out, she reminded herself.

Liseli lived in an old two-story house with peeling gray siding.  It used to be white, but no more.  She climbed up the porch steps and pulled open the creaky screen door, reaching out habitually to smooth down a piece of duct tape covering one of the holes.  The door clapped shut behind her, and she heard her mother’s favorite crime drama coming from the living room.  She paused to glance in at the dark room lit only by the television, and saw her mother alone on the sagging couch.  Liseli’s half-brother lay on the floor with a Game Boy in his hands.  No Craig.  Good.

Liseli climbed the narrow stairs and went into the bedroom that she shared with Leona and Lara.

Lara was sleeping, her small face and pale yellow tangles pressed into the pillow.  Liseli smiled at her faintly and tiptoed through the room.  She got an old, oversized tee shirt and pair of sweatpants from the bureau, then crossed the hallway into the bathroom.

Leona was there, leaning over the sink as she applied mascara.  Liseli surveyed her outfit for the night: a black leather mini-skirt and nearly see-through white wraparound top that left her midriff bare and little to the imagination further up.  She frowned and glanced at Leona’s legs before saying, “Fishnet?”

Leona glanced at her in the mirror.  “Apparently.”

Liseli shook her head, leaning against the doorframe.  She didn’t speak, but she didn’t have to.

“Don’t sneer like that,” said Leona, uncapping her lipstick.  “It makes you look frustrated.  Oh wait . . . .”

You look like a hooker.  A cheap hooker.”

Leona huffed.  “This shirt cost me a fortune.  Anyway, Hart likes this outfit.”

“I’m sure he does.”

Leona shrugged.  “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to dress up and go out sometime.”

“It’s a Monday night.  I have work tomorrow.”  Liseli looked down at the baggy old clothes in her arms.

“Yeah, but you never date.”  Leona rolled her eyes as she applied her dark maroon lipstick.  “You need to let me set you up with someone.  I know lots of guys.”

“I know you do.”

“C’mon.”  Leona turned around.  “We could double-date sometime.”

“Leona, we’ve been over this a thousand times.”  Liseli pushed herself away from the doorframe and plopped her clothes down on the hamper next to the shower stall.  “I’m not interested.”

“Well, I am, so stop being so grumpy.  I’ll see you later.”  Leona blew a freshly glossed kiss her way as she went out the door.  Always flirting.  Leona would bat her eyes at her own reflection.

Liseli sighed as she set about cleaning up Leona’s stuff.  Once the countertop was clear she started to undress.  Many of Liseli’s clothes had been picked out by Leona; most of the time she had enough sense to not bring home the more outlandish outfits that Liseli would refuse to wear.  Still, Leona never gave up trying to make her date, or wear flashier clothes.  She supposed that without Leona dressing her the way she did, she wouldn’t have guys like Russ staring at her and conveniently bumping into her.  She glanced in the mirror and shook her head.

She got in the shower.  The water pipes roared to life as she fiddled with the hot and cold knobs, trying in vain to reach the ideal balance between the two.  But it was good enough.  She stood under the stream of water and closed her eyes, letting the drops pummel her face, washing away the grime of the day.

It was Monday, burger night.  Tuesdays were better, that was pizza night.  Wednesday, fried chicken; Thursday, subs; Friday, burgers again.  On the weekend, Mom actually cooked.  Russ didn’t really care for weekends.  Tuesday was the best.  Mondays and Fridays were the worst, because wasn’t it bad enough that he had to eat lunch at the Burger House already?  He used to like burgers, till he’d started working there.  He often thought of trying to get a job at the Pizza Pantry across town, but worried that if he did, it would ruin his appetite for pizza.

He carried the Styrofoam carton with the sodas in one hand, and in the other, the greasy paper bag stuffed with burgers and fries on the inside, and stamped with Mr. Smiley Burger on the outside.  He pulled the door handle open with the worn toe of his left sneaker, then jumped inside before the screen crashed shut on him.  “Dinner,” he called out to no one in particular, setting the food down on the face of a model posing across the front of one of Kyla’s fashion magazines.  He’d learned to avoid the bills and other important business mail covering the surface of the kitchen table.

“’Bout time,” said Kyla, appearing around the corner of the living room door.  She spit a wad of green gum out into the trash and added, “Better not be cold today.  It was cold on Friday.”

“Whatever,” Russ muttered, yanking his Coke from the tabs on the tray.

Kyla unfolded the bag and sniffed.  “Smells warm . . . .”

He coughed, and she glanced up at him, observing, “Still sick?  Don’t cough on my food.  I bought you some medicine after work, today.  You should take some before you eat.”

“Mm,” he grunted around the straw as he drank the overly fizzy soda.

She rattled her bracelets — three on each arm — and said, “I mean it, Rusty.  It’ll just be a waste of money if you take it after filling your stomach.”

“Fine, whatever,” he said, plopping the soda down on the table.

“I put it in the medicine cabinet,” she said, though he was already heading up the stairs to the bathroom.

Kyla’s cosmetics were strewn about the sink top, with a smear of “Profoundly Pink” lipstick across the green faux marble that for a moment reminded him of the mess at the Burger House.  It just needed a little yellow.  His stomach did a weak little flip-flop, as if it was contemplating a full turn.  He grabbed a Kleenex from the box on the back of the toilet, and emptied what felt like his brains into it.  His ears rang, and his head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.  Damn.  He hated colds.  He jerked open the medicine cabinet, his reflection in the mirror distorting as it angled toward him before disappearing against the wall.  Tylenol Cold & Sinus.  Kyla always took care of everything.

When he went back downstairs, she was sitting perched on the edge of her chair, elbows on the edge of the table as she chewed her burger slowly over the newspaper.  She remained silent as he took his burger and fries out of the bag and folded it back down over their mother’s dinner.  She didn’t move her head as he walked past her toward the back door, but he could feel her eyes following him.  Kyla could turn her eyes around 360 degrees, it seemed.  But she still didn’t say anything as he opened the door and stepped out onto the back stoop, and he was glad.

Outside in the increasing dark a few bugs buzzed around the back porch light.  Russ sat down on the edge of the stoop, with his feet on the step, and set the fries and soda down next to him.  It was still pretty warm outside.  A slight breeze ruffled across the yard, moving the swings on the old rusting swingset like a ghost parent pushing his specter children.  The neighbors’ dog was barking next door, but he couldn’t see it over the fence.

He didn’t really feel hungry; in fact, the burger looked greasy and repulsive as he unwrapped it.  He tried to clear his throat, unsuccessfully.  The fries were too salty — he reminded himself to avoid batches that Glenn made.

The door opened behind him, and he stifled a groan as Kyla stepped out and said, “There’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?” he responded, coughing a little around the limp stick of potato.

Kyla walked around him, and stood in the yard facing him, holding her arms down at her sides and rattling her bracelets a little.  “I talked to Marcy today.”

He shrugged, taking a bite of the cheeseburger.  Overdone.

“We had a long talk about different things, mainly how she feels about . . . well, different things.”  She swung her arms up and crossed them over her thin chest.  “Basically, I set up a date between her and a coworker of mine.”

Russ choked on the swig of Coke he’d just been drinking.  He coughed it back out of his windpipe and wheezed, “You did what?”

“He’s in accounting — very good worker, fast, too.  He’s seen Marcy with me a couple times, and asked about her, and so I thought it would be good for both of them to—”

“Wait a minute.”  Russ looked up at her incredulously.  “I don’t give a damn about that.  Marcy’s my girlfriend, what the hell are you doing—”

“That’s the other thing, maybe I should have mentioned it first . . . .  Marcy has decided to break up with you,” Kyla explained with indifferent patience, holding out a hand to silence him.  “Like I said, we had a long talk about it.  She doesn’t feel the two of you are working out, and I agree.  So, it’s time to move on.”

Russ was speechless for a moment.  He stood up, still holding his quickly cooling burger in one hand.  “Marcy never said anything to me.”

Kyla shrugged.  “Well, you have to admit that you haven’t really talked to her in quite some time, Rusty.  I mean, when’s the last time you even took her out on a date?”  Before he had a chance to respond, she answered, “Two weeks ago, to a movie.  And that was it, just the movie.  See?  Marcy needs more than that out of a relationship.”

Russ shook his head, and walked out into the yard, pausing by the swingset to think.

“It’s for the best of all concerned,” Kyla continued.  “It’s obvious to both of us that you’re not very attracted to Marcy.  I don’t know if you ever stopped to think how that makes her feel, but girls do like to feel desirable.  I mean, I set up your first date together, what, a year ago?  And you never even tried sleeping with her, that’s—”

“None of your damn business!” Russ snapped, wheeling around.  “Would you stop monitoring my fucking life, already?”

Kyla sniffed and looked down her nose at him.  “I’m not ‘monitoring’ you . . . I just had a long talk with Marcy, and she told me how she felt about it.  Obviously, you don’t feel any attraction towards her, and that can be very depressing for a girl, especially Marcy.  You know she’s self-conscious about her figure — I guess she’s not skinny enough for you, or something.  That’s pretty shallow, in my opinion, but I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Oh, shut up,” he grumbled, kicking a pole on the swingset.  “I don’t want a lecture.”

“It’s not a ‘lecture.’  If you want a girl who’s stick-thin, then fine, that’s your problem.  But Marcy doesn’t have to live up to your chauvinistic ‘standards,’ so she’s dumping you,” Kyla spoke without trying to conceal her satisfaction.

“Fine!”  Russ paused and glanced down at the burger, then tossed it over the side of the fence with a curse.  There was a surprised and happy yip from the neighbor dog.  Russ stalked toward his sister.  “Fine,” he repeated, pointing a finger at her, “but you can tell your friend Marcy, that . . . that she’s not getting any discounts at the Burger House, anymore!”

Kyla raised her eyebrows and smirked.  “I’ll pass that along.”

“And tell her that next time she dumps a guy, she should get a fucking backbone and tell him herself, instead of letting you run her pathetic life!”  He doubled over for a racking cough.

“Oh sure, who’s more pathetic, Rusty?  Marcy’s got a date tonight, you’re gonna spend the night in your room, making love to your guitar!”  Kyla sneered, her bracelets clanking against each other like cymbals.

“Shut your trap,” Russ lifted his right hand, forming it into a fist as if he would strike.

Kyla took a step back, “Don’t touch me,” she said evenly, pointing at him with a claw-like fingernail.  “Don’t even think about it.”

“I wasn’t,” he replied, lowering his arm.  He walked past her, pausing to kick his soda over.  It spilled all over the salty French fries, and dribbled across the step.

“I’m not cleaning that up,” Kyla snapped.

He was about to snap back, but at that moment he saw the front door open down the hallway, and his mother walked in.  He swallowed his retort and squeezed the door handle for a moment, then released it while attempting a deep breath.  Just as well, he told himself, you never win.

Sandra Markson shrugged her purse off her shoulder and tossed her key chain on the table by the door.  “I’m home, kids,” she called out before catching sight of Russ.

He opened the door and stepped in.  “Hello, Mom,” he said stiffly, muting a cough.  “How was your day?”

“Eh, busy, dreary, banal as always,” Sandra sighed, rubbing her neck.  “Where is your sister?”

“Back yard,” he said, and sidled around the table, heading for the hallway.  She had no more to say to him, turning her attention to the food waiting for her.  He slipped from the kitchen and tiptoed up the stairs, careful to avoid the spots on the steps that made them creak.  Sandra couldn’t stand it when he made the stairs creak.

He shut his bedroom door, careful not to slam it or make the hinges squeak, then turned on the light.  Before him lay what some would call a disaster area — the sheets and blanket on his bed weren’t even tucked under the mattress, hanging off the bed at every possible angle, tangled at odds with each other.  Clothing was strewn around the floor and the dresser, and the open closet revealed years of assorted junk. His guitar leaned up against the wall in a corner near the window.

He walked over to the window and looked out, cupping his hands around his face to block out the light.  He looked down across the fence into the neighbors’ yard, where the dog was sitting outside its doghouse, barking up at the moon.  “Hey buddy . . . how’s the neighborhood tonight?” he said under his breath, and twitched a smile when the dog tossed its head and barked.

Russ backed away from the window and sat on the corner of his bed.  He flipped on the radio, and listened as it came faintly to life.  He had to keep the volume very low, so it wouldn’t reach his mother’s ears.  She didn’t care for music of any kind, and especially not his kind.  A tiny voice screamed out lyrics about love and hate and sex, and Russ closed his eyes, coughing again.  Normally he’d pick up his guitar and try to play along with the rhythm, very quietly, but tonight he groped for the tissue box on the floor, and cleared his nose.

The burger and fries sat heavy in his stomach, and he could imagine the chunks of food mingling there with the phlegm . . . his stomach flip-flopped dangerously, again.  He reached up and slammed the radio off.  Who were they to be angry?  They were rich, and famous, with millions of swooning fans.  They could go to hell, and so could Kyla and Marcy, for all he cared.

Not that he hadn’t really seen it coming.  Kyla was right — he wasn’t attracted to Marcy.  He never had been, but it hadn’t really mattered . . . they had gotten along well enough.  He’d liked her in the same way he liked the neighbor’s dog, and that was okay.  It wasn’t like he could get anyone else who would allow herself to be known as “Russ’s girlfriend,” anyway.  In nine months of dating she hardly ever said anything of importance to him.  But that had been okay, too.  It was fine to talk about the movie they’d just seen; the characters were more interesting than their lives, anyway. He’d never thought or hoped that their relationship would last.  But she could have told him herself.  She could have said what was on her mind, what she wanted and what she didn’t like.  Why did she always have to go to Kyla?  That meddling bitch.  She enjoyed this.

Russ fell back onto his bed and allowed himself a little groan.  He slung his arm across his eyes to block out the light, and listened to the ringing of his ears.  He could feel and hear the rattle of congestion in his throat as he inhaled.  He lay there for a few moments, closing his mind to thoughts of Marcy and Kyla.  Whatever . . .  he told himself over and over, and eventually he relaxed a little, and pictures of Liseli flitted across his mind.  He could see her again, standing over the griddle, her back to him, fiery golden hair drawn up away from her neck, curling in the ponytail that swished back and forth as she moved.  She looked good from the back.  Today she’d been wearing a dark blue shirt with thin horizontal black stripes, and a pair of khaki capris — they looked good on her.  Everything did.

Her dark green eyes had flashed at him when he touched her shoulder.  She was startled, angry . . . maybe repulsed, he couldn’t tell.  Russ let out a thin, rattling sigh as his thoughts ran over her.  He imagined different reactions from her.  She smiled at him, she said his name sweetly, she leaned up against him, she put her hand on his chest . . . she struck him across the face with that hot metal spatula, covered in burning oil.

With another sigh, Russ lifted his arm off his face and let it flop down on the mattress.  He opened his eyes and stared at the cracks in his ceiling.  He could hear the sound of his own voice, mingled with Kyla’s, echoing in his head.  Pathetic . . . pathetic . . . pathetic . . . pathetic . . . who’s the pathetic one . . . now . . . .

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