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Through Your Strength You Shall Overcome

A novel excerpt by Lucas Stangl

The night I found Tina and Bruno, the night I snuck into her apartment because someone was leaving the building as I came to the door, the night I jumped up the stairs three at a time, the night I tried her doorknob and it was unlocked, the night I tiptoed into her clean living room, the night I heard Tina purring in the bedroom, the night I knew the end had finally come, that night, I got the drunkest I've ever been.

We're talking black-out drunk; we're talking lost-track-after-the-fourth-shot-of-tequila drunk; we're talking I-don't-know-how-I-got-home drunk.

That night, that cold December night—Christmas waiting in the wings, a sterling silver ring waiting on my dresser—I could have made a scene in the bedroom. I could have made an "ah-hmm" sound and tried to stop the coupling. I could have stormed the bed and tried to beat the shit out of Bruno. I could have thrown my shoe at them. Instead I threw back a beer. I threw back a shot. I threw back another beer. Another shot. Instead, I moped my way down to a cheap bar—which is hard to find in New York City—and threw myself onto a stool. I threw my money on the bar. I threw away brain cells by the bushel.

And the next day, I threw it all up. Marty stood by my side. Kneeled by my side, as I heaved and emptied my stomach of the poison. The liquid-answers I thought I would find in the cheap bar. Marty stroked my back as it flinched and shook with each upchuck.

Marty said, "I already called out sick for you and told Boss I would be in late."

I tried to say "Thank you" but bile came out instead. My nose burned. The smell wafted up from the toilet.

Marty pushed the flusher. Marty opened the window. He said, "There are other fish in the sea" or something like that.

I lay down on the SpongeBob bathroom rug, fetal position.

Marty placed a large towel over me. Marty made tea in the kitchen. He called out to me, "Stoners, my boy, I know how you feel. This tea will mollify your stomach."

I closed my eyes but only saw Tina and Bruno, in her bed. The bed I had slept in for months. The bed I made love to her in. The bed I sought refuge in when mine offered nothing but dirty sheets and a sagging middle.

Marty put a plain bagel in the toaster oven. Marty returned to the bathroom, his Betty Bop key chain jingling as he walked. He said, "Eat the bagel with some butter. Rest up."

I heard him leave for work. I heard the toaster oven's bell ding. As I crawled to my feet, my stomach began to settle down. But when you're hung-over, time seems to move slower. An hour feels like a day; walking from the bathroom to the kitchen seems like the New York City marathon.

Outside the kitchen window, the small window that looked out at another brownstone, snowflakes flurried, petite dancers performing just for me. I sipped the tea and ate the bagel. My stomach continued to simmer down.

And, later that day, as I practiced a card trick—the one where you pick a card and I tell you to look at it but don't show me, the one where you stick it back in the deck "anywhere you want," the one where I shuffle the cards telling you a bad joke (maybe the one that goes How many basketball players does it take to screw in a light bulb?), the one where I place the deck against my forehead and say "Queen of spades" but you laugh and say "not even close," the one where I take my Abe Lincoln style black hat off my head, the one where I scratch my behind my ear, the one where I glance inside the hat and proclaim "oh yeah," the one where I pull a rabbit out of the hat, the one where the rabbit is nibbling on your card, the one where you reach out and grab your card petting the rabbit's head—my stomach settled down completely.

As I sat in a greasy spoon's booth with Marty pointing out all the gay guys in the place, as I took big bites of a bagel and small sips of weak coffee, I relived those twenty-four hours in my head.

"See the man over by the cigarette machine, those flip-flops with the rainbows on the thong are a dead give away."

The Mustang had galloped through Illinois. We were in Beloit, Wisconsin. We were one state away from my home state. I was hungry. Marty accepted my apology.

"And him, what ever could he be thinking consuming all those carbs?"

After I blew up at Marty for pointing out my weaknesses, the rest of Illinois was spent with radio.

"I can not believe that man would drive a Ford Focus. That is so 1999."

Two more things about road trip: fights are inevitable; and if you don't make up, the rest of the trip will be horrific.

"Ooh, he fills out those jeans better than George Cloney."

As the Mustang approached the Wisconsin border, I apologized. "Marty, I'm sorry I blew up back there." I wanted Marty to say he was sorry too. I wanted him to tell me the stress of driving may have exaggerated his perceptions of me. I wanted him to declare I do live in the here and now. Instead, he said, "Good. Now let us get some sustenance."

We took an exit and found a nice roadside diner. We went in, got a table and refueled ourselves.

"She must be thirty-three," said Marty after our waitress left the bill on the table.

I didn't even bother guessing this time. No guess is still a guess.

Once we paid, once we fed the Mustang, once I hopped back behind the driving wheel, we headed back onto the Interstate.

I still wanted to make amends. We were closer than when we started; but to have a fight linger in the trunk would make the ride home unbearable.

"Remember the morning after Tina and Bruno?"

The Mustang galloped into a line of cars in the left lane. We would draft. We would speed.

"Yes, I do."

"I don't think I ever thanked you for all your help." I paused.

The line of cars reached an even seventy-five and stabilized. Marty made the "okay, so thank me already" gesture with his shoulders.

"I can't thank you enough for all the support you gave me that day and the next few months. Without your friendship, I don't think I would have survived the breakup."

I wanted Marty to say "You are welcome." I wanted him to say "My pleasure." Instead, he said, "Stoners, my boy, do not play that role. Do not pretend Tina meant more than she did."

The lined up cars passed slower ones. Ginseng fields crowded the Interstate.

"What do you mean?"

Marty turned to face me. He patted my thigh. "You and Tina had a few good months filled with sex, companionship and working out. Do not inflate the liaison. You two were not in love. I do not even know if you were in lust."

I wanted to speed, to feel the wind whip my hair. I wanted to weasel my way out of the line of cars. I wanted to drive like Marty, like NASCAR DNA. Instead, I grit my teeth.

"You and Tina were a cute couple for a month or two. Then, the fights. The arguing over the phone. The going to see bad movies on purpose to torture the other person. Why do you still pine over her?"

I wanted to growl at Marty. I was trying to make up with him; but he was still picking fights.

"Besides, what did you ever see in her? Sure, she dressed nice and had good calves, but there was nothing upstairs. No sense of humor. No common sense. I remember when she threw out your favorite deck of cards because they shuffled 'icky'."

This was true. Tina felt it was her duty to throw away things that seemed old, that cluttered up my bedroom. Decks of cards, old magazines I was saving, scratched CDs that skipped when you played them. Each visit to my place occasioned her dropping more "junk" into the garbage can.

"You were only happy for six or seven weeks. After that all you did was complain, complain, complain about 'Tina did this' and 'Tina did that'."

More mocking. More fault finding. More teeth gritting.

"I helped you that day because I thought you would grow. I thought you would be able to see what a crappy girlfriend she was. Think about that quote of mine you quoted. I will paraphrase myself: Even a lousy experience makes you a better person. Stoners, my boy, I wanted you to bounce back. I helped you because I like you best when you are happy."

"Well, you're telling me how to live certainly ain't making me happier."

Marty dug out a small book, The SpongeBob SquarePants Oracle. "Let's ask it a question."

Two things about The SpongeBob SquarePants Oracle: it's a book—sort of like a Magic 8 Ball—that you ask a question to, open to a random page, and seek its under-the-sea-cartoony advice; and, it's a crock of shit.

"Why is Cary Stonislowski a.k.a. Stoners still hung up on Martina Martin a.k.a. Tina?" He flew open the book and read, "'You are strong! Through your strength you shall overcome.' SpongeBob SquarePants"

Marty waited a minute for the Oracle's suggestion to sink in. There were times back when I first moved in, back when neither of us had a significant other, back when the winter nights were long and cold, back when we were only temps, back when everything seemed temporary, Marty would read both The Book of Questions followed by an answer from The SpongeBob SquarePants Oracle. We would drink red wine and debate the meaning of both question and answer—hours, nights, months passed during those bullshit sessions.

"See, SpongeBob knows all."

The line of cars began to split up. I decided to stay in the left lane and accelerated—if Marty could speed, why couldn't I?

"You have the ability to overcome but if you never try to get over Tina, you never will. It is that simple."

Maybe it was that simple, I thought passing a rusted Volvo with Colorado plates. Maybe all I had to do was snap my fingers and poof my life would be different, better. Maybe all I had to do was wave my magic wand and say "Alakazam!" and the Interstate of my life would lead to happiness.

"Stoners, my boy, you are too quiet." Marty used my lack of conversation as an excuse to turn on the radio. "If you do not want to talk, then you will have to dance." Marty looked for a top forty pop station. He turned the volume up.

The Mustang galloped by a Nissan Xtera with Wisconsin plates. The speedometer climbed right.

Marty sang alone to the song. He threw his arms in the air, acting out the silly love-drenched lyrics.

"When I'm in your arms…" Marty hugged himself.

The Mustang galloped by a Lexus SUV with Illinois plates.

"…everything is in place." Marty sang, making the thumbs up sign.

The Mustang galloped by a Hyundai Tiburon with Minnesota plates.

"I see love everywhere…" Marty motioned to the ginseng fields, the Interstate, the cars, the cows, everything.

The Mustang galloped by a Covenant Transport Mack Truck with Pennsylvania plates.

"…especially on your smiling face." Marty reach over and pinched my cheeks, making my mouth do that fish-kiss-face kids make on the playground during recess when they want to kiss someone but are too shy to actually do it.

The Mustang galloped by a state trooper with Wisconsin plates parked on the median. It was too late to break. It was too late to slow down. But it wasn't too late to get over Tina.

 

Although waffle-cut fries are Lucas Stangl's favorite, there are times when he tolerates a batch of curly fries. This cuisine-suffering is what inspires him to write. Some of his work has or is slated to appear in The Peralta Press, Poetry Motel, Coe Review, The Adirondack Review, Poems Niederngasse Online, The Fifth Column, The Drexel Online Journal, Main Channel Voices, 32 Poems and McSweeney's Internet Tendency

Through Your Strength You Shall Overcome is an excerpt from Lucas's unpublished novel Tomorrow We Live.

 

Photo "Despaired" courtesy of Nara Vieira da Silva Osga.

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