Randall Morgan preferred to sit in the back row, whether it be
in airplanes, cars, even the mega-whopper-daredevil roller coaster at the
Little Heaven amusement park. He was a cool player, didn’t say much,
a real hood of a fifth-grader. His Grandma Lottie raised him.
Our whole class knew Lottie because she came to the annual gym bake sale
fund-raiser drunk as a frat boy. The back of her pool-blue housedress
was tucked into her pantyhose and she was not wearing much underneath.
She reeked of lawn fertilizer and the first thing she did when she slid
into the gym was come and hug me, just shove my face into her baggy bosom.
Just like he watched my lips move when last month I told him I had slept
with his wife, Laurel. I went over to his house in Highland Hills
on a Friday night. He had made it big, invented a new kind of earplug
that didn’t hurt when worn for more than seven-point-five hours.
Laurel engineered the whole operation. They met when she moved from
Nebraska during our fifth-grade year. On her first day, she opted
to sit in the back row of our class. “It was destiny,” he said, “really.”
I worked for my father, who owned a Lucky Spoon Restaurant franchise
near Marine St. Croix. I was the heavy, the guy customers came to
when things could not be solved by Jenna, my stepsister.
Laurel was a coupon queen. She liked stuff for free, and that’s
why I encouraged her to visit me, dine at the ultimate family kitchen.
The first time she came, I had to hide in the men’s room, sheer anxiety.
She was a thin, long-waisted redhead, with bushy, high volume hair and
when she stepped down from her blue Suzuki crotch rocket, I felt woolly
hot. She wore black motorcycle pants and Lottie’s beat-up old Harley
jacket. Sometimes she wore a helmet, and this, I told her, turned
me right on. Then she’d do the charlatan hair shake.
She ordered a chocolate frosty, a double bacon burger and crinkle fries.
Randall Morgan knew things. Even in fifth grade, he was a lime-smart
kid. Other kids would cheat and he would take the rap for it.
“All right kids, now someone here did a baddity. Raise your hand
if you’re innocent,” Ms. Pleemeier would say.
We would all raise our hands, even me, who hid a crib sheet in my palm.
I raised my right hand higher and shoved the answers down my pants with
Ms. Pleemeier looked at Randall, who sat with a slight grin on his face.
“I see,” she said.
I slept with his beautiful wife in the Spoon’s back room, the back of
the cheapy movie theater, the tool shed in his own backyard. She
had a lovely body, a damn near Rockette.
“I’m a louse,” I told him that day he covered for the Pleemeier incident.
“I’ll just do this over and over again and I won’t be sorry.”
He picked up his three tall sharpened pencils he kept at the top of
his desk. One of them rolled. We watched it fall, all the way
down until it bounced off my shoe.
“I know,” he said.
I picked up the pencil and walked back to my desk. I looked back
at him and eyed his cool smile. Something about the smile I wanted.
The next weekend, I stole his dog. Sure, I had one, Barney, a
pit bull-dachshund, but I wanted Felicia, his mighty leonburger.
The dog was a steer, full-blooded, waggish and slobbery, but the most majestic
creature I could find in the neighborhood. Lottie fed her raw roasts
and cabbage heads soaked in bacon grease. I wanted to see if Felicia
could pull me across the neighborhood pond on a toboggan.
“So why didn’t you keep her?” said Randall during lunch the next Monday.
“Freakin’ A,” I said. I dumped my cottage cheese into my canned
peach cup and mixed them with my plastic spork.
“Maybe you should think about having a leash next time,” he said.
He nudged me and made me giggle. I laughed like a girl, a goddamn
pre-teenie. I hated when he did this.
“Lottie tell you she saw me?” I said.
He did not say anything.
“Listen. No, forget it. Don’t,” I said. I had the urge to
pop him one, for no reason.
His eyes brightened up something big. I followed his gaze to the
lunch line. Laurel had picked up a two percent milk carton.
She drank the whole thing and threw it away before she reached the cashier.
When I drove up to Highland Hills to bring the news, the front yard
was filled with combat gear and camou net. It really looked like
D-Day for squirts. Kids flew all over the tires and ropes.
A tiny girl painted a camouflage face on another little girl. The
painted girl held a mirror to her face. She dropped it and punched
the other girl square in the nose. “This is what they do,” said the
A pudgy boy wailed from the tire obstacle course area, all four limbs
lodged in a Firestone tunnel. His buddy, a lanky, too-tall-for-her-age
tomboy, pulled at his combat boots. They seemed to be around the
age of the other kids, six to eight years old. I walked over to the
tire kids and announced myself as a friend of the family. “Good,”
said the girl, “then pull on Ronny’s legs.”
She gave me his right leg and we pulled on the count of three.
Ronny shot out and flew into the nearby climbing wall. “Hey kid,”
I said. I walked over to him and squatted down to his level.
“Do you want me to call your mom?”
Across his face spread a slim satisfied grin, one I knew since childhood.
A G.I. Jane came up to us and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “He takes
after his grandfather,” the woman said.
I turned around and felt queasy. “Laurel. I mean, well I
was looking for Randall.”
“Just leaving, dears,” she said. She winked at me and headed for
the street, toward her cycle.
“Dad says she goes out with other guys,” said Ronny. He got into
a karate pose.
I took off my jacket and grabbed a green face crayon. “Is it a
duel, dragon man?” I said.
The sky darkened as we made Bruce Lee noises and flipped each other
around. Two other kids joined him. They got me good, with the
tomboy polishing me off in the third round. After a blow to the chest,
I fell to the ground and pretended to be dead. The kids got bored
and headed toward the pop cooler.
I fell asleep while staring at the sky. After about twenty minutes,
a little toe poked my forehead, then nudged my head so it fell to the side.
I half-opened my eyes and saw the face-painter girl. Minuscule blonde
ringlets framed her face. I got up fast and she screamed.
“Hey maybe we could be friends,” I said. I offered her my rough
“My daddy says if you hold your breath like this,” she said and sucked
in a bunch of air. We stared at each other as the time passed.
I looked at my watch and then showed her the second hand. Her cheeks
got bigger and pinkish-purple and then when her eyes seemed to bulge, she
aimed her two index fingers at her cheeks and popped them. “Then
you can learn control,” she said, “and so I . . .” She held
her breath for another forty-five seconds and then blew it in my face.
“So I practice it every day. Wanna try?”
Her warm munchkin hands touched my cheeks. I blew up my cheeks
and she kept her hands on them. I did cross-eyes for her.
“That’s not part of it,” she said, “OK, now just hold it there and um,
She ran toward a swarm of kids. Screams of delight filled the
air, then they all joined in unison, “Happy birthday to you, you
live in a zoo . . .. happy birthday dear Sharon.” The crowd formed
a large circle and in the middle of it sat the blond ringleted girl.
She wore a hair garland of popcorn and a Girl Scout cookie strung around
her neck like a medal.
“Now honey,” came a male voice. I looked harder behind the group
of kids. “Your real presents are inside, but here’s your favorite
cake.” Randall Morgan broke through the human chain carrying a large
log-shaped cake. It had real sparklers stuck in it.
I must have passed out from holding my breath, because the next thing
I know the kids are gone and Sharon’s got a big plate of melting cake and
a dead sparkler in the other, saying, “Daddy told me to tell you
to eat before it rains.”
I looked up at the now indigo-black sky. “Well, crap,” I said
Randall walked up to me and gave me his hand. “Sharon’s already
planning her next,” he said and smiled.
The kids went to the basement and we settled around his gas fireplace.
Randall pressed a button and the log lit up. He popped in his crackling
fire CD and motioned for me to sit on the floor. No furniture in
the house, just rugs.
I moved over so he could also be in front of the fireplace. “Sit
here,” I said.
He sat down cross-legged against the far wall. We were about fourteen
“I forgot,” I said and turned around to face him. I mimicked his
yoga pose and felt my knees crack.
“Sharon thinks you’re neat,” he said.
“Listen, there’s something I’ve got to tell you, it’s why I’m here.”
The fireplace vent now blew hot air. My neck began to sweat.
He took off his cardigan. “I know all about it,” he said.
I turned toward the Laurel wall, a six-by-ten-foot mural of Laurel lying
on her back, blowing her pinwheel on an emerald knoll. I felt the
need to bite my nails, then scratch my head, then bite the nails again.
“I was there.”
It made sense somehow. “So what kind of husband are you anyway?”
Randall straightened his back and a shadow fell on the side of his face.
“You’re my friend. I’d give you my house,” he said.
I felt a prick at the base of my skull. I stood up and walked
toward him, hearing the creak of the pine floor beneath my feet.
When I was within a few feet of him, I sat down and leaned back against
“I won’t stop seeing her,” I said. My knuckles grew white against
His smile grew. “How would you feel about sharing her?”
Sharon came up from the basement with a messed up slinky. She
laid it in my lap.
“Ronny says you’re good at things. Can you fix it?”
Randall pulled himself to his feet and excused himself, saying something
about the basement.
I pulled my reading glasses out of my front pocket. Sharon grabbed
them from me and put them on her face.
“Oh, cool, how do I look? I gotta see the mirror,” she said and
The glow-in-the-dark slinky, mangled by many eight-year-old hands, sat
in a sad clump in my hand. “Pieces of shit,” I said.
“I heard that,” said Sharon from the bathroom.
A month ago, I had my job, my affair, my taekwondo, a whole lot of things.
Within that month, Dad promoted Jenna to manager and I got her job as hostess.
The boat I borrowed from Randall got spray painted by the locals.
Laurel still met me for coffee every other morning. She had a tired
look, bought Visine drops and baggy eye creme.
“How are the kids?” I said.
She cried and dug into her sausage link.
I mean, that’s it. I cannot get her to stop crying. I kiss
her and I end up drinking her slobber and woe, but this is what she chose,
I tell her. She seems to want the both of us.
Last week she stabbed her waffle sixteen times and proceeded to fork
it into a hundred pieces. When finished, she poured catsup all over
the plate and turned to me.
“It’s enough, don’t you think?” she said.
I took the bottle from her and set it back into the silver lazy suzanette.
“Give me your hand,” I said.
“Randall named an earplug model after me,” she said. She opened
her hand and out fell a balled-up tissue.
I motioned to Jenna for our check and then closed up Laurel’s hand again.
The icy fingers locked against the palm.
I drove home thinking about Laurel’s condition and then about eyedroppers,
what amazing things they were. I kept a stopper bottle in my jacket
pocket and would sometimes fill it with substances I found around the kitchen.
Milk, olive oil, peppermint extract, water if I felt rain would cure my
mood. Laurel hipped me to the idea during a fifth grade chorale concert
in the gymnasium. Laurel was a phenomenal zither player. We
sang a few Joni Mitchell songs and when the audience thought they could
take no more of us, she would begin, massage that baby until it sang.
Even my mother was impressed.
During intermission, Laurel led me into the robe closet.
“Here, hold this,” she said, and handed me a flashlight.
I turned it on and shined it up my nose. “Look, I’m Nosferatu,”
Laurel held an amber glass bottle with a black stopper. The liquid
inside swirled and then separated into magic bubbles, which rose to the
surface. “Drink this,” she said in a low voice.
I shined the flashlight on the bottle. The bubbles seemed to dance
and taunt each other.
“Sparrow, we don’t have all day,” she said. She gave me that nickname
after she found me singing to a dead sparrow in my back yard. Barney,
the ruffian, had taken the baby from its nest and pawed it until it stopped
“Told you to quit it with that name,” I said. “You do it first.
She shook the bottle, unscrewed the cap, closed her eyes and stuck out
I licked my finger and then stuck it in her ear.
She kneed me in the stomach but kept her mouth open. “You do it.
Give me ten drops,” she said.
Her whole face fascinated me now. The upturned chin, the freckles
that bridged over the nose and the small one over her right eyebrow.
I removed the bottle from her fingers and held it over her mouth, the thin
pink lips. “Ready?”
She stood still as I squeezed the black rubber stopper.
Bright purple drops oozed and dove tongue-ward. After the saturation,
she closed her mouth, opened her eyes and smiled. “Now you,” she
It tasted like concentrated grape juice and something else, which burned
when I swallowed.
“It’s called vodka,” she said. “The potion won’t work without
She put her arms around my neck. The things I had smelled before
from a distance were now threatening my space. The caramel neck sweat,
the apple-blossom hair, the rose-scented talcum powder on her neck.
All of this would be detected on my clothing by Randall, no other.
“This is it,” she said. Her breath I still remember to this day,
a concoction of grape juice and a sexual elegance beyond her years.
Laurel liked pinwheels. Randall won her over when he bought her
the rainbow colored model that lit up when you blew into it. I had
given her blue and green metallic six inchers, then the classic Happy Days
model. I also found a charming clear glass pinwheel in Redwing.
“He gave you the Super Special Lite model, huh?” I said to her.
It was our freshmen year at the University of Minnesota. We sat in
the hallway outside her dorm room, two in the morning.
She rubbed her neck. Recurring eczema from her mother’s side,
she told me.
“He ordered it from a catalog months ago,” she said. “He’s been thinking
about it for months.”
I imagined her inside my brain, discovering her name and face etched
in every lobe and cavern. “Are you going to marry him?”
She fell against the wall and hit her head. The hallway echoed
her slow exhale. “Hand me that, will you?” she said.
I gave her a bottle of Slivovitz. She sniffed it first, then drank
it down like Kool-Aid. Her body contorted as the plum brandy fingered
its way down. She smiled at me and drank more.
“We should go camping this weekend,” I said.
“Sparrow, I love the both of you, but him more. Spilled milk?”
I forced a laugh, then grabbed the Slivovitz.
Randall called me up, rather woke me up from my afternoon nap, and told
me he was not worried anymore. “Hey, man, you want to go cruising
down Hennepin, just like we used to?”
My forty-seven-year-old eyes stayed crusted shut. “In the middle
of dreaming, Randy. Maybe another time,” I said. Still spread-eagled
on my stomach, I reached my arm out to hang up the phone and missed.
The receiver dangled from the bedside table.
“Be over at your abode in about ten,” he said.
I lifted my head to yell at the phone, but collapsed. Soon I entered
Sparrow land, where I could fall into unsuspecting elevator shafts, make
love to Laurel, or go back to college, where I should have told her I loved
her. Instead I dreamed of running a marathon in which I competed
against only dogs. Barney and Felicia acted as the pace cars and
heckled me as I strode into my twenty-fifth mile. “Drop dead Sparrow,
you can’t win,” said Felicia, her face a somber brown.
My body jolted and I opened my eyes. Randall stood before me wearing
jeans, a black leather jacket, and a Harley cap. “You look dead,
man,” he said. He socked my arm.
“Watch it, I bruise.”
He went over to my bureau and pulled out my sweats. “Unless you
want to wear something else,” he said.
“What are we cruising for this time?”
He smiled and pulled car keys out of his pocket. He’d brought
the Ford Fairlane.
“All right all ready,” I said.
Cruising with Randall did not capture the excitement of blowing a pinwheel,
but it sufficed. He bought me bratwurst and pilsner at the Edelweiss,
where boys wore lederhosen and girls were ample.
“Ah Minnesota,” I said, viewing the flushed Scandinavian dumpling bending
over to take the next table’s order.
“Do you like that one?” said Randall. “You can have her.”
He motioned for the waitress to come to our table.
“Solveig,” she said and pointed to the brass bratwurst on her lapel.
“Sole-Vay, long on the Oh. What can I fetch you?” She whipped
out her order pad.
“Sparrow here doesn’t think he’s attractive enough to get a girl of
your exquisite beauty,” he said.
I sunk my face into the giant stein.
“Would you go out with him on let’s say, Saturday night?” he said.
She bent down between us and examined both of our middle-aged faces.
“Well, let’s see here. Got any kids?”
“No, as a matter of fact, he doesn’t,” said Randall. “Look at
him, he’s a prime example of a man who has something to offer.”
She touched my stubble and then the back of my head. “I don’t
like dogs, I hate snoring, and I want to go out with other guys.”
My beer was gone. “Could I order a side of spaetzle?” I said and
pulled on my sweatshirt hood.
She turned farm-girl sweet and rubbed my head. “Next beer’s on
the house,” she said. She took the menus from the table and glared
at Randall before she left.
“What’s wrong with you?” I said to Randall.
He took my head in his hands and locked his fingers onto the bone.
“I love Laurel,” he said.
I tried to remove his hands from my face. “Why does she still
see me then?” I said. I wanted him to give up, fess up and realize
he had no grounds to stay married to her.
We stared at each other. Every few seconds, the ceiling fan chain scraped
against its light fixture, phwish-tong, phwish-tong. His long fingers
worked their way down to my throat.
“Laurel and I have not had sex,” I said.
He let go and took a sip of his beer.
“Slept together. We cuddled, took naps, kept warm,” I said.
“Nothing more.” My truth startled me. I felt toxic, shaky.
German polka music came out of the loudspeakers, followed by a string
of dancers. Solveig and a lederhosen boy sashayed down our aisle.
“You should be happy then,” I said.
He sunk deep into his chair.
Solveig came over and sat on his lap. “You know I’m not really
German,” she said. “Buck up, old boy.” She leapt from his lap
and continued the dancing.
“She left me this morning,” he said.
I reached out my hand.
“Don’t,” he said. He took his hands off the table and tucked them
between his legs.
Two more beers appeared. I felt someone pinch my behind.
We sat for a while in silence, taking in bits of the music, staring
at our bubbling pints. I thought back to Sharon’s party, the family,
the cake, the kids. “Wait,” I said.
He pulled out a folded note from his shirt pocket and tossed it onto
“That bad, huh?” I said.
He lit it on fire with a bar match and let it burn between our eyes.
The flames zipped around the edges, dancing and consuming, laughing and
dying. We watched the sentences diminish into words, then to a single
letter. He caught the ashes in hands and rubbed the flakes into fine
gray powder. Sighs of relief came from the tables around us.
“Do we know this guy? Does he live around here?” I said.
“It’s who she is,” said Randall.
A hard weight lifted from my chest. I thought of Laurel, her third
man, the crazy way she looked at me yet did not see me, then I thought
of Randall. I felt giddy and heard myself laugh out loud. “Can
you feel it?” I said.
He shook his head and then looked up at me. The farcical music
gained speed and volume, snuffing out our thoughts. The bar hand
flipped a switch above his station and projected song lyrics onto an open
white wall. Other people in the restaurant rose from their tables
and joined in the polka. They linked arms and sang, swaying and pulling
themselves into a strange new family.
I drank the rest of my beer and wiped my face.
“Well,” he said.
“It would be freakish,” I said.
He stood up and walked toward the dancers, his ashen head soon bobbing
in the wild carousel of youth.