Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

We Were Waiting on Our Chinese Food

Bayard Godsave


My little brother Audie was sitting next to me, wearing this old Ronald Reagan mask that he’d found somewhere amongst our mother’s things. She used to have all sorts of stuff from back then, when seemingly rational people considered in all seriousness the possibility of waging war in outer space. Audie had worked a plastic straw

up through the mask’s narrow tablet-shaped mouth hole, so that he could drink his Sprite without having to take it off.

‘Do you even know who Ronald Reagan is?’ I asked.

‘Was,’ Audie said. ‘He’s dead.’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Was. Do you even know who Ronald Reagan was?’

Audie looked up at me through the rubberised and accentuated twinkle of Reagan’s vacant sagging eyes. ‘Ronald Reagan defeated communism.’

‘Well, that’s not entirely true.’

‘It is so true. He defeated communism,’ Audie repeated.

‘Where’d you hear that anyway?’

Audie shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Russell.’

‘Russell,’ I said. The sun had set outside, and against the darkness the restaurant’s lobby was doctor-white. In the corner Dave Schwinn, who graduated a few years ahead of me, was smoking a cigarette and leaning suggestively over the Guns N’ Roses pinball machine. ‘Russell’s full of shit,’ I said.

Russell was Russell Fitzgibbons, who at that time was dating the mother of one of Audie’s friends, this kid Keith, who’d always struck me as being kind of a punk, the kind of kid who was always swiping cigarettes from someone – from his mom, from the V&S on 2nd Street, from me – the kind of kid who knew exactly where in the woods you could find a pig carcass, or damp cache of discarded nudie magazines. My mom and Ken were never wild about Audie hanging out with him, but my mom was even less wild about seeming classist or elitist, so their friendship was always grudgingly permitted.

Russell, then, was something like six years older than I was, and despite that, had still been a mainstay at all of the bonfires and keg-parties when I was in high school. And he was full of shit. I remember one night, we were all out in this field somewhere, the wrestling team was throwing gasoline and wood pallets atop an already dangerous blaze, and Russell Fitzgibbons was telling me something about the pyramids, about how the Egyptian gods were in fact humanoid extraterrestrials from some far-off galaxy – a theory which, incidentally, figures prominently in the movie Stargate.

‘When’s our food going to be ready?’ Audie said.

One of the girls behind the counter called out, ‘Order number thirty-five’, and Dave Schwinn took from her the two brown paper bags she held out to him. As he left he nodded to me.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I’m serious. That Russell guy. You don’t want to be around a guy like that. He’s a bad guy, Audie.’

‘I don’t know,’ Audie said. ‘It’s not like I hang out with him or anything.’

Audie and I have different fathers. All I really know about mine is that he was on the lacrosse team at Middlebury and lived in the same dormitory that my mom did when she was going to school there. Audie’s father, Ken, started coming around when I was maybe eleven or twelve. He married my mom almost right away, and they had Audie soon after. I like Audie – of course I do, he’s my little brother – but try as she might, my mother could never get me and Ken to get along. And I hadn’t originally planned on being home that weekend, but Ken had said something over the phone about Audie getting out of hand and needing someone to talk to, because apparently, earlier that week, Audie had been caught trying to walk out of a Target store with five or six CDs tucked under his jacket.

‘I heard what you did,’ I said. ‘Stealing. You know better than that, Audie.’

Audie shook his head slowly. ‘Whatever,’ he said.


‘I said. Fucking. Whatever.’ He was swishing the last of his Sprite around in the bottom of the can. ‘All I have to do is talk to some lady every couple weeks. It’s no big deal. And I’m just a kid, so it’s not like I’m going to have a record or anything.’

‘You’re not going to have a record?’ I said. ‘Who told you that? Russell? Your little friend Keith?’

‘I heard Dad on the phone. And, yeah, Keith said Russell said the same thing.’

I couldn’t help thinking about this, and it’s something Audie wouldn’t have known, and something that I never did tell him, but Russell Fitzgibbons stole my skateboard when I was in seventh grade.

I was a moody kid, and I’m sure I was thinking about love, or loneliness, or the lyrics of Kurt Cobain as I cut through Highland Park that afternoon, staring gloomily at the thinning trees that ran along the edge of the Dan DeWalt Memorial Baseball Diamond. I was carrying my skateboard under my arm, an old Per Welinder street deck, with a hyper-detailed graphic on it of a skull wearing a Viking war helmet. It was way cool.

And I never did see him, I just felt these two meaty thumps on my back, then everything sort of went diagonal, and the chain-link fence that ran along the right field line was yawing through the air and coming straight at me. I landed hard, the heels of my hands scraping in the gravel; my skateboard was laid out on the ground in front of me. One of the wheels, and I can still picture it, was spinning slowly in the empty air, going nowhere.

‘What the fuck, asshole,’ I said, looking over my shoulder, seeing who it was only after the words had come out of my mouth.

Back then Russell Fitzgibbons wore his bangs way down over his eyes, with these hair-wings that feathered out over his ears. He had a canker sore on his upper lip, just a bit off centre, and his teeth were the colour of potato chips.

‘Let me see your skateboard,’ he said, as I pushed myself up off the ground. ‘I want to make sure it’s not cracked or anything.’

‘That’s OK,’ I told him. ‘Thanks.’

He stepped towards me, his movements slow and predatory, crowding me up against the fence. A smell like motor oil spilled off of him. He took from his back pocket a flat-head screwdriver and held it up and pointed it at me. ‘It’s not an option,’ he said. ‘Give me your fucking skateboard.’

I had to cross my eyes so that I could see it, the screwdriver. He’d tried to file the head down to a point, and he’d wrapped the handle in duct tape that was no longer silver, but had grown a kind of a dull and faded grey. The tape’s weave was showing through in places, and its old glue had mixed with Russell Fitzgibbons’s dirt and sweat and had turned into a kind of black and gummy grime.

‘You can’t do anything with that,’ I said.

‘I can gouge your fucking eye out,’ he said. He raised the screwdriver up slowly and rested its point on my lower left eyelid. I remember thinking how light it felt, like a fly or a mosquito, just before my stomach went all wormy with fear, and without my even thinking it, my arm extended out to him an offering, an exchange: my skateboard for my eye.

‘Thanks. Pussy,’ he said.

Even after he’d said that, even after he’d taken possession of my skateboard, he still held the screwdriver to my eye. He twisted it slowly, gently, with just enough pressure to make me aware of its presence. Then at some point it disappeared again into his back pocket.

As he walked away, I watched him and thought about it, how I’d been beaten up before, how I’d had things taken from me before, by force, but how it had always been by other kids, how it had always been kid-on-kid violence. Then along comes Russell Fitzgibbons, nineteen years old and sticking up a middle-schooler with a screwdriver. What kind of a way was that for an adult to act?

‘Hey, Russell,’ I said.

He stopped, but didn’t turn around, just stood there. ‘Do you even ride?’ I asked.

He looked at my skateboard. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I guess I don’t.’

‘So what do you want with it anyway?’

Russell Fitzgibbons shrugged then leaned the skateboard against the metal fence-post next to him. It rested at a diagonal, my skateboard, its wheels up in the air as if in some animal pose of submission. He raised one work-booted foot and held it over the board. He looked at me, smiled, then brought his foot down, heavy and fast.

There was a sharp crack and a marrowy tearing sound, and when I looked down at my skateboard it was in two pieces. Pulpy blonde splinters pushed up through the grip tape here and there along its two ragged edges.

‘Why didn’t you do something?’ Russell Fitzgibbons asked me.

But I couldn’t speak. I just looked down at the obscene remains of what was once mine.

‘You are a fucking pussy,’ he said. And with that he was gone.

You don’t let go of something like that quickly.

I remember later that night sitting in my room, on my bed, not really doing anything, that sticky, coppery taste in my mouth as I replayed it all and imagined what I could have done, what I should have done differently, when Ken opened my door, letting himself into my room. He pulled my desk chair over, set it by the foot of the bed and sat down.

‘How’s it going, guy?’ he said. He rested his elbows on his knees and gave me one of those nodding, I’m-concerned-about-you looks.

‘OK,’ I said.

‘Your mother tells me some creep stole your skateboard.’

My mom always had a way of noticing things like that. As soon as I’d walked in the house she’d said something like, ‘Where’s your skateboard?’ And I’d known even then that I should have lied to her, that I should have said I’d left it at school or something, but for some reason I just couldn’t keep it in. ‘This fucking asshole, Russell, fucking stole it,’ I had said, trying to hold back my tears and my embarrassment.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah. But I’m OK.’

‘And we’re all grateful for that,’ Ken said. ‘Really. But in the end you’re still out one skateboard, aren’t you.’

Ken has this tattoo of a mushroom on his neck, a psychedelic mushroom. When he wears a collared shirt, like he does when he goes to work, like he was wearing then, it’s mostly covered up, but not quite. If you don’t know what it is, it looks kind of like the rim or edge of some out of control birthmark.

‘Your mother and I work hard so that we can provide you with nice things,’ he said, ‘like your skateboard. And this is how you repay us?
By l-etting some guy take off with it? Just like that?’

‘It wasn’t just like that,’ I began.

‘You have to learn that things have value,’ Ken said. He said it like he really believed it, like he felt it somewhere deep inside him: the inherent use and worth of material things.

‘It’s just stuff, Ken,’ I said.

‘It’s just stuff,’ Ken mimicked. He stood and went over to my desk and began rummaging around, making a lot of noise, making a big production of it.

‘Come on, Ken. What are you doing?’

I had this leather pencil case back then that my mother had given me one Christmas, and inside it I kept a bunch of Pilot pens and drafting pencils and gummy erasers and that sort of thing – I was going through this phase where I spent a lot of time meticulously reproducing heavy metal album covers in ink and colored pencil – and Ken picked this up off my desk.

‘It’s just stuff,’ he said again.

‘Alright,’ I said. ‘I get it. Just put it back. OK?’

He held the leather case out to me and then snatched it away as I grabbed for it. I kept grabbing for it and Ken kept snatching it back from me. After a while he was laughing. ‘You’ve got to try harder than that,’ he said. And then he was shoving me a little bit too, and boxing my one ear with his free hand.

I knew what he wanted me to do and at a certain point it dawned on me that I was willing to do it. ‘This’ll keep happening to you until you learn to stick up for yourself,’ he said.

And that’s when I went for it. I jumped up off the bed and plowed straight at him. Now, I’d been beaten up plenty of times before, but, truth be told, I’d never really been in a fight. So I imagine I must have looked profoundly foolish. I hit at him with my open hands, and I clawed at him, and I can still see his shirt coming open at the collar, and red marks on his skin, slashing angrily across his tattoo. I yelled a lot, and hit and shoved him, but none of that was really doing anything.

And he just kept laughing at me. ‘Is that all you got?’ he said. He wasn’t even fighting back, he was just standing there, letting me go after him.

When I started getting tired, he shoved me and, re-energised, I shoved back at him. We knocked some things over and upset the small collection of books I had on my bookshelf. Soon, I got him up against the wall. I felt my hands closing around his neck and squeezing. Ken made this sound in his throat like he’d just realised something had changed. He dropped the leather pencil case and grabbed hold of my wrists. His eyes went wide and there were these wet and desperate noises pushing out from between his teeth. I kept squeezing. ‘How’s that, Ken,’ I said, knocking his head back against the wall. ‘You mother fucker.’

By this time I’d decided that I was going to go through with it, that I was going to kill him. I stared into his eyes and squeezed with everything I had. And it was only in the last second, and out of the corner of my eye, that I saw his fist, his softball-sized fist, coming at me. It connected with my mouth, and every joint in my body rattled. I staggered back, then tripped over a knocked-down lamp and fell into a pile of dirty clothes.

My teeth had torn through my cheek, and my mouth was ragged and too-big on one side. The room was damp with our collective breath. I touched my hand to my face and it came away bloody. Ken stepped over and leaned down to get a good look at me. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘You’re going to need a doctor.’

The steamy smell of wontons made everything in the car feel damp and warm. ‘Audie,’ I said. He raised his head and looked out the windshield, the streetlight throwing into relief every pock and nubble on the Reagan mask.

‘Audie, take that thing off.’

He did. His hair floated above him in staticky tendrils. In the time since I’d last seen him his face had grown knobby and bulbous, as if his adolescent self were trying to break through the pupa of youth.

‘Now give it to me.’

Audie sighed, but still held the mask in his lap.

‘Give it here, Audie,’ I said.

This time he handed it over. I folded it in half and put it on the dashboard. ‘All of this is so temporary, that’s what you don’t get,’ I said. ‘School, this town, your friends. But if you keep pulling this shit, if you keep fucking up like this, you’re going to find yourself stuck here.
One of those losery guys, you know. Like Russell.’

Audie rolled his eyes and looked away.

‘I’m fucking serious,’ I said. ‘Now you listen to me.’ Outside, on the sidewalk, two boys in varsity jackets passed in front of the car. ‘You’ve got to stop,’ I said, slowly, over-enunciating each word. ‘You’ve got to stop being a dick. If not for me, then for mom.’

Audie stared at the dashboard, at his mask, and said nothing.

‘Alright?’ I said.

‘Alright,’ Audie said, and popped his eyes wide in annoyance, feigned or for real it was difficult to tell.

‘Alright,’ I said.

I could see the owner of the Number One Chinese Take Out standing outside now, stooped over a bucket of sand, pulling cigarette butts from it with a kitty-litter scoop. I’d put the key in the ignition, but for whatever reason I couldn’t turn it. I was looking at Audie’s mask, folded on the dashboard. I thought of our mother then, how long it would have been since she’d have worn it, or touched it even. I watched the old man outside drop cigarette butts in ones and twos into a plastic take-out bag. And I no longer believed a single word of what I’d said.

‘Can we go now?’ Audie whined.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Just give me a minute.’