Toluene, by Max Sheridan

This guy I knew, he thought he could make his shit high stick­ing toluene up his ass. Some peo­ple know more than one guy like that. I fig­ure you talk to enough of them you’ll hear just about any­thing twice.

You stick toluene up your ass and you will not get high. I know you will not get high because of the warn­ings on the mark­ers. They tell you every­thing. They tell you not to eat it or inhale it or sniff it or any­thing. But there is not one warn­ing on any of those mark­ers about insert­ing toluene into your rec­tal ori­fice. Means no one but that guy I knew ever thought of doing that. He invented that and if he sent a let­ter, said he’d just stuck a watermelon-flavored marker up his ass and got high as a kite, you can bet they would write some­thing to that effect on the pack­age and ruin it for all of us. WARNING: DO NOT INSERT THIS MARKER INTO YOUR RECTAL ORIFICE. IT MAY CAUSE BRAIN DAMAGE.

I tried sniff­ing toluene. I’ve licked it. I’ve steamed it. I’ve glued it into peb­bles and smoked it. I stole a gross of toluene mark­ers from the high school art closet in Fort Dodge once and ate a whole damn box.

They blame the IQ gap on that, which means I walk into a store and the fat guy behind the counter is twenty years older than me and he’s smarter than me because I huffed toluene and he didn’t. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily believe that claim. Why can’t he stop me steal­ing Chee­tos then? Why is he so damn fat?

Hon­estly, I’ve had it with Armand Assante. You ever had that ten­sion in your jaw where it feels like you’re walk­ing around with a bank safe strapped to your head with a red-assed baboon sit­ting on top, jump­ing on your head? That’s what it’s like to be sick of Armand Assante and not be able to do any­thing about it.

You might say, Well, hell, at least you don’t have to see Assante when you turn on the TV. He’s so bad he’ll never fea­ture in a movie marathon.

That’s worse actu­ally, when you don’t see him, because you can only imag­ine him.

Years back I sent let­ters, some pretty bad ones. I shat into an enve­lope once and removed the turd and out­lined the stain with toluene. I sent let­ters like that to Armand Assante out of a PO box in Waukomis and never heard back.

That was a lie. The first time I got some­thing from Assante that said: Dear Mr. Gre­gor Mendel, although Mr. Assante doesn’t have the time to answer all his fan mail per­son­ally, he reads every let­ter. He wishes to thank you for your kind words.

And I’d just sent him my shit.

After that I didn’t hear back.

There ain’t no use cry­ing. Ain’t no use laugh­ing either. I laughed at a cop one time and got cited for pol­lut­ing God’s cre­ation. That was in Ponca City, Ponca Lake Park, and I’d pissed into the water after clos­ing time and he’d seen me. He said there’s peo­ple fish­ing and swim­ming. Hell, he said, there’s peo­ple wash­ing, splash­ing, cavort­ing in that water and I’d just relieved myself like a pack ani­mal. Me, I don’t know how I’d got all the way out there to Ponca City if I hadn’t been huff­ing. When I asked that offi­cer for a ride back to Enid he should have had an idea of my posi­tion vis-à-vis self-inflicted brain impair­ment, how many years I’d been prac­tic­ing. He agreed to drive me back up the road to where his part­ner was wait­ing in a police truck and they ripped up the ticket and got their boots dirty on me. I’ve never been back to Ponca City. I’ve never crossed Route 35 since.

Besides that guy who tries to get his shit high, I got a cousin who sniffs mark­ers. Ron­dell isn’t a Negro but he gets called a Negro all the time because of his name, even when he’s there with you and you can see he’s white as shit.

Rondell’s worked ten years at Bear­ing Rub­ber and Hydraulic coil­ing hose with­out fuck­ing him­self up yet. That’s because Rondell’s per­ma­nently ele­vated. You want to know what Rondell’s on every day he shows up for a shift? Just open up your util­ity drawer and pick out any­thing in a bot­tle that smells like bad news. White­out, rub­ber cement, sil­ver pol­ish, the fumes from crazy glue. Paint thin­ner. I’ve seen Ron­dell snort the blue soap off of Brillo pads. Heavy-duty one-way ticket. You ever want to see a man with­out a con­science, and I mean lit­er­ally with­out because it’s been replaced by pure chem­i­cal fumes, just call Ron­dell. He’s got what you’d call devo­tion, long-haul endurance. He can fill his whole damn med­i­cine cab­i­net at The Home Depot.

Me and Ron­dell, we got into trou­ble one night before I changed my name. This was hardly a month after they’d let me out of high school and we’d just gone through half a box of San­ford glit­ter high­lighters Rondell’d stole from the Save-A-Lot and Ron­dell got this yen to steal kung fu robes.

That’s the thing about toluene. You do it steady enough, you sus­tain that feel­ing, and your saner oxy­gen starves. All you’ve got left are the shit-ass crazy molecules.

It was one of those vel­vety early sum­mer Okla­homa evenings and I knew it wasn’t going to get any bet­ter than this. We were sit­ting there lis­ten­ing to Slayer, get­ting our asses kicked at Don­key Kong on Rondell’s Cole­co­V­i­sion, and we decided to run out to the Conoco for a breather.

They knew us there at the Conoco but they watched us any­way. Prob­a­bly if they didn’t and the cam­eras caught them breath­ing out their mouths while we was fill­ing up on Slim Jims and Chef Boyardee and half-price Con­way Twitty tapes they’d get their own asses fired. Any­way, we had money tonight. Ron­dell did. He had a job.

Ron­dell poured him­self a Frozen Dr. Pep­per big­ger than his hands and let it ice the fumes in his head a while. He called this “beez­ing.” While Ron­dell beezed, I won­dered what the fuck I’d do with myself if I waited five years and let myself become Ron­dell. Ron­dell had quite the ego and I was sure he hadn’t even been laid yet. I’d at least got­ten my fin­gers dirty.

Ron­dell had one of his moments of clar­ity, what had got him the nick­name the Glue Bud­dha at Bearing’s. He said we ought to steal those kung fu robes and show up at the M&M Bar wear­ing them. We’d order a round or two in our robes and then put them right back. As if break­ing into a kung fu dojo wasn’t bad enough, Ron­dell thought we’d just mosey on in again and return what we’d stolen. Get it all on cam­era case they missed us the first time around. Take a shower maybe, eat a can of tuna. That’s how fucked up Ron­dell was.

I said, “That makes not one bit of sense, Ron­dell. Even if you plain stole them, what would be the point?”

Rondell’s beez­ing some­times gave him this look you might con­fuse for clear, pointed think­ing. If you ask me, he just looks like he’s about to be hit by a car but don’t know it.

He said, “You ever stolen from a black belt before, Clyde?”

“I sure as hell haven’t.”

“You think it’ll make them black belts mad?”

“You bet.”

“You think they’ll beat the shit out of us then? If they catch us?”

“I sure as hell hope not.”

We huffed the rest of those high­lighters in Rondell’s Bar­racuda. If I had to give Ron­dell any points, it would be there. That car kills. The mag wheels and tooled leather are enough to make you for­get who’s doing the dri­ving. We cased the dojo for prob­a­bly just a lit­tle too long. It was obvi­ous no one was inside, and who hits a dojo any­way? Nobody. Rondell.

Ron­dell said, “You know this dude?”

I knew Bridge Jack­son well enough to stay far clear of him. I swear Jack­son could beat you up with his stare alone. He was one tough Negro and I respected him and wouldn’t ever have thought about steal­ing his robes if I hadn’t been junk­ing my mind on high­lighters since dinnertime.

We parked way down the road and around the cor­ner so you couldn’t even see Jackson’s dojo from there. Ron­dell had a roll of plas­tic garbage bags in the trunk. He always did. If he wasn’t mak­ing a mess, he was pre­pared to clean one up. This time they came in handy.

There was a street­lamp mak­ing a pretty big splash out front. We passed under it and cut left to the unlit side of the build­ing. We went over to where Ron­dell imag­ined the bath­rooms were.

I put a foot up on Rondell’s chicken shoul­der and held him like a bowl­ing ball under the ears and he got me up as far as the tran­som and that was all I needed. I slid right through, and most of my fear steamed off right there. The alarm was the big if and Jack­son didn’t have one. I dropped down head­first onto my wrists and rolled onto a soft can­vas bag. Even in the dark­ness I could see Rondell’s bath­room was the equip­ment closet.

I got up and tried the door. It was locked from the out­side. I called out to Ron­dell and the big dummy said to try the lights. I knew bet­ter and waited for my eyes to adjust. I kept my voice down.

“You dropped me into the equip­ment room,” I said.

“That’s bet­ter than the bath­rooms,” Ron­dell said. “You found those robes yet?”

I’d hadn’t found any­thing yet but spar­ring gloves and a spar­ring mitt. I’d found cakes of toi­let soap and plenty of roach killer and some mats on a util­ity shelf. I zipped open the bag I’d rolled onto and laid my hands on a lady’s wig. Under the wig were lady’s under­things and two short pil­lows and under the pil­lows was more money than they had at Lib­erty Fed­eral for sure, stacked in crisp Hol­ly­wood bricks and rubber-banded. It smelled bet­ter than but­ter­milk waf­fles cooking.

“Throw ‘em up and get on out,” Ron­dell said.

I hadn’t made any noise for a while, I guess, and Ron­dell must not have liked that. No one could see him where he was but so what.

I threw a brick of Bridge Jackson’s money out the win­dow and Ron­dell shut up. I threw out another five bricks, stuffed a few more into my pants pock­ets, front and back, and packed the bag back up. I’d just had my first clear thought of the evening. If we stole only this much, it would look like an inside job. They’d think it was one of Bridge Jackson’s stu­dents or helpers that had got greedy, or his brother Barry, a mean son-of-a-bitch and a nat­ural midget. I tested the metal shelves.

“All clear?”

But Ron­dell wasn’t answer­ing. I called out again. Then I shut right up.

I’ve learned since that betrayal will always catch you dumb. In another world where I wasn’t trapped in Bridge Jackson’s equip­ment closet, I’d have said that Ron­dell didn’t know any bet­ter, that he’d beezed away all the sense he’d ever own. But I could see that crack of light under the door now, which meant Rondell’d seen a hell of a lot more than me and he’d left me flat on my ass.

Quiet as I could, I made a go at climb­ing Jackson’s shelves. I felt like a one-armed mon­key. When my head came back out the tran­som, there he was, pasted to the wall like a win­dow jumper with sec­ond thoughts. We had a moment of mutual under­stand­ing then, Ron­dell and me, but I still won’t tell you that Ron­dell gave a good god­damn and wasn’t mostly frozen into place like a pos­sum in a dump­ster. He told me to get the hell down and he held out his chicken arms. As my shoes slith­ered up and over the win­dow sill the light in the closet popped on and a mean midget voice barked out at the soles of my feet. That voice was crazy as they come with rage.

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

A good beeze can last you the whole night if your brain cells are used to it. I told Ron­dell to stash the money in the trunk, in his tool box. Ron­dell said ok but when we got to the M&M Bar he wanted to take one brick inside.

“I’m break­ing one of them bills,” he said.

“That’s not a good idea,” I said.

“I’m break­ing the first hundred.”

“You do that and Jackson’ll sure find out.”

“They break them every week at the One Stop.”

Ron­dell was right. Most pay­checks are spent that way in Enid when Fri­day rolls around and you’re the king of the whole damn planet. It’s only when you’re lying in bed on Sun­day with a bro­ken fin­ger and no med­ical insur­ance, no food in the fridge and noth­ing in the bank, that you remem­ber you work for that money. I let Ron­dell carry in that brick but I had him promise me he’d peel it in the bath­room, in a stall.

Right away Ron­dell ordered us a plate of bour­bon and beer chasers. He called us over two older ladies to help us out. Now, I was sexed up as usual but I could see that these two women I might think twice about stop­ping to look at out of sheer curios­ity. Sad to say, they were eying us up the same way.

One of them had stringy mop hair and dark mas­cara that had run but she didn’t know it. She had thin thin lips. The other one was chubby. Names went around. I excused myself politely and left them there to get to know Ron­dell and see what a fool he was so they’d leave us alone and we could get home.

I ordered a bot­tle of beer at the bar and I didn’t even get ID’d. I nursed that long­neck like a pro, mak­ing occa­sional relaxed eye con­tact with a bet­ter look­ing catch sit­ting in the shad­ows at the crook of the L being bored by her date. I said I was sexed up. Now I felt skit­tish. I ordered a shot of Wild Turkey, want­ing some­thing to hap­pen but not know­ing how to make it happen.

She was look­ing at me reg­u­lar now and her date wasn’t blind to this. He was a big one and I could tell he’d never huffed a thing in his life. I won­dered if he’d already given up on lay­ing her that night and would beat it out of me like those cops in Ponca City had. The creeper next to me knew. He’d already started scoot­ing his stool over towards the cash reg­is­ter. I was this close to send­ing her over a drink.

A Negro midget with a shot­gun might be the fun­ni­est thing you see in your whole damn life but hell if you’re going to laugh if you actu­ally hap­pen to see one in a crowded bar tak­ing aim at you. Barry must have been coked up silly bust­ing into the M&M try­ing to set­tle up scores with buck­shot. God­damn. I looked every­where for Ron­dell, but it seemed Rondell’d made him­self scarce.

The bar­tender had his counter rag out now and he was clean­ing his hands. I hadn’t fig­ured he was yel­low on account of his size but the boy’d already cleaned them about nine times. Out the cor­ner of my eye I saw that creeper on the barstool again. His creep­ing had almost got­ten him to the cash reg­is­ter. I wished I could have told him to stop that, that if there’s one thing in this world would make Barry more shit-ass crazy than he already was it was an obvi­ous get-away creep.

Then I got mad myself. Here I was barely a month out of high school and I had to shoul­der men like Ron­dell and this creeper, teach them how to behave like men. I’d lost my ROTC inter­view because I was high on Conoco reg­u­lar and I wasn’t going to become a marine in this life­time. It was a straight dot­ted line from Don­key Kong and Slayer to a case-a-day habit and a crap pen­sion after a forty-year run at Bearing’s that would seem like one very bad month. I could see it all, that this was the best it was ever going to get, and I was so mad at the world I would have fin­gered Ron­dell right then and there if he wasn’t in the toi­lets padding his crotch with bar napkins.

I said, “Barry, I don’t know what you want but we two are going to take this thing outside.”

Her eyes were still on me. I knew they were and it felt like this was too easy, being a man. I was clear-headed and mean as gaso­line and ready for the Lord Jesus Christ to knock my ass all the way to China.

I eased off my stool. I winked at her and watched her just about melt under the fear and ten­sion. Even her date wasn’t much of a man any­more that I could see. I winked at him too. I took my time get­ting over to where Barry was.

Barry and Ron­dell. Which of them two had a deeper brain fry on that night is idle spec­u­la­tion, but I’d prob­a­bly have to give Ron­dell the edge for the kung fu attack he’d been plan­ning in the toi­let that whole time. He was still hum­ming from that plat­ter of bour­bon and the resid­u­als of his king-sized beeze and I guess he just mixed up his skills. He flew out of the bath­rooms on kill mode with a toi­let paper head­band and blew right up to Barry, but instead of knock­ing the shot­gun out of Barry’s hands, he pick­abacked that lit­tle man using his shot­gun for reins. I swear it was a moment in the his­tory of mankind. I’d never seen any­thing half as dumb as Ron­dell and his beezed-out brain cells, so it was another sec­ond maybe longer before I even real­ized that that midget and his single-barrel Snake Charmer .410 were headed straight at me.

What do you feel when you’re star­ing down the bar­rel of an oiled shot­gun? You feel like your body, your heart and lungs and pretty much every­thing you are that you can’t see, is inside you and that it is out­side you, on the walls and on the floor and ceil­ing, at the very same time. That you are bleed­ing to death as you breathe. That in your joints instead of mar­row you’ve got trapped cordite and you can already smell it start­ing to uncurl and sit on the air. What you feel is that you are two places at once and none too good. I put every­thing I had into keep­ing my eyes open so I could watch that sono­fabitch cham­ber catch fire and blow my sad ass away.

Kaboom!

Barry missed me by two fat asses. He hit the creeper’s stool instead and blew out the top two rungs and a lit­tle chunk of his coward’s ass.

Soon as that hap­pened the M&M jumped back to life. I mean they were all scram­bling for a place to stay alive in. Even she was. It was just instinct. She’d dropped into a back­woods squat and now she let out a scream that wouldn’t come. It was like she’d just fallen twenty sto­ries in a dead ele­va­tor and her stom­ach was on back­wards and still five floors up. I don’t think I’d felt a damn thing but my heart jump a beat.

That gun went off two more times and when the smoke cleared I could see Rondell’d been burned bad. He’d had his eye­brows singed right off and his nose was peeled raw so that he looked dif­fer­ent, almost like a sun­burned baby. He’d dropped a steam­ing load that was just now rolling out his pant cuffs. Barry him­self was down, blood trick­ling from his shiny black fore­head. The shot­gun had skit­tered across the wood floor and for a moment no one could find it.

Ron­dell was still lost in his kung fu daze and I thought they were going to have to slap him to shut him up. He was that fucked up, and I guess he never really recov­ered. You’d hear later on at Bearing’s about how Rondell’d burst out into the same rou­tine at ran­dom, in the super­mar­ket even. For now he just kept whip­ping up the air with his chops and side­ways kicks, maybe until the police came.

Me, I knew those stacks of hun­dreds in Rondell’s trunk were at least a hun­dred deep and I grabbed her by the wrist and we made for the Bar­racuda and took that money and hopped on the first Grey­hound bus that wasn’t Kansas-bound.

I changed my name. I stopped send­ing Armand Assante shit in the mail and I stopped huff­ing and after the red marks on her wrist healed over we had a lit­tle baby girl that I kept when she left me with three months paid up on a vinyl-sided house that was no condo but no god­damn trailer either.

 

Author Photo_Max SheridanMax Sheri­dan lives and writes in Nicosia, Cyprus. He wrote fea­tures for the Cyprus Mail for a few years—until he was forced to chal­lenge the film critic, a noto­ri­ous wind­bag, to a duel. Some of his recent short sto­ries have appeared in DIAGRAM Mag­a­zine, the Atti­cus Review, the Writ­ing Dis­or­der, and most recently, Thuglit. His lat­est novel, Dillo, is look­ing for a home. He keeps his work here: www​.maxsh​eri​dan​lit​.com.

 

 

 

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