When the key slipped from Brandon’s fingers, he cursed his luck with a “Motherfucker.” He swung his shaggy head around, bloodshot eyes searching the floor. He needed to smoke. The damn key bounced when it hit.
The floor was littered with crap unswept since before the day he moved in. Bottle caps, pizza crusts, a stray apple core, cat hair, paper scraps, a busted rubber band, old batteries from the remote because Cat used them for toys, an uncapped lip-balm tube, a driver’s license, which he had picked up once to see that it belonged to a sallow-faced blonde with nice teeth before dropping it again, dirt, grass clippings, and leaves tracked in by everyone who entered. He heard the key hit the floor with a ting. Too bad he had to lock his shit up. “Damn world is full of thieves.” At least Katrina finally went to work after being off two days for a gigantic cyst on her left tit.
Brandon got down on his knees and peered under the shredded blue cloth skirt of the couch but the key didn’t want to be found. Fuck the filthy floor, his dehydration, the nagging ache that thrummed in his head. He didn’t need the damn key. A counselor once said that Brandon needed to find a way to solve his own problems. He knew how he could open the box. He made up his mind and left the apartment, letting the door slam shut behind him.
He found a hammer that would do at the General Dollar Store. He paid $3.23 and told the clerk, “I don’t need a bag. I guess I can carry it.” He broke his last ten, but a check was due from Grandma. He liked the weight of the hammer, its yellow and black plastic grip. Real men got their tools made custom; the hammer made him feel like one of them. He carried it in his right hand and then tried his left. Either way, it was on the balance. He walked aside the four-lane highway swinging the tool, trying it out, content with having a solution. Who needed a key when you had a hammer? He crossed the highway at the light by the Texaco and turned down the road to Sunnyvale Apartments.
He pounded out a rhythm on the sun-splotched body of the once red Escort. Not only was it an ugly, old ride, a hand-me-down from his grandmother’s cousin, it had died a slow, ugly car death; its water pump leaked, its gas filter clogged, its alternator got stuck, its oil pan dripped, its frame was cracked, and then an engine mount broke. Square orange stickers, bright as traffic cones, dotted three of its windows. Before it got towed away by the State, he had something he wanted to tell it. “You look like a piece of shit,” swing, smash, a dent the size of a Whopper, “old, broke down, you got a stink,” an arching crack at the hood, “burn you up if I had a match,” another because the last one felt good, “got a hammer, how you feel that.”
He was thinking of smashing the windshield when Church Lady came out of her apartment. She pretended to be all pure and Christian-like but he’d seen empty wine bottles in her garbage. She always wore a cotton dress that looked like a pillowcase with arms, the same cloudy color as her frizzy hair and face. “What are you doing, Brandon Phipps? They’re coming to get that car.”
“Whose car is it?” he asked, challenging her with a swing at the windshield. It cracked, shatter lines running all through it, but it didn’t break into pieces. A couple more swings and it finally crashed and dropped into the stained front seats.
“I’m going to call Wheelie and report you.”
“Why don’t you go in and shut your door? Nobody wants to listen.”
“You stop causing all that ruckus.”
It was his car, and even though he didn’t want it, nobody could tell him what to do. He didn’t want the shit Escort but he wanted a ride, to cruise on the open road, a man driving himself. The headlight burst with a bright shatter and glass fell to the concrete.
“I’m calling Wheelie now.” Church Lady went inside.
He wasn’t worried about the complex’s manager. Wheelie never hung around Sunnyvale; he had better things to do. The ruined Escort knew how Brandon felt. He flipped the hammer in the air and caught it by the handle. He still had skills. He walked through the parking lot, flipping the hammer and catching it until it slipped from his hand and hit the ground, its handle breaking from its head.
“Piece of shit,” he spit. He hated General Dollar Store merchandise. When he bent to pick the hammer parts up, blood rushed to his head. He sat down on the gravelly asphalt. His throat felt dry as sandpaper stuck on the rough side. He needed something to drink right away. He saw some kids at the apartment’s playground area shooting a basketball into an old hoop that didn’t have any net. He stood up and put the hammer parts in his pockets. He sauntered over and decided the two Mountain Dews sitting on the pavement were full enough. “Hey, let me buy those sodas. I’ll give you fifty cents apiece.” It seemed a fair price considering the sodas weren’t brand new.
“Are you kidding me?” said the tall, skinny kid with curly hair and a blue T-shirt with cut off sleeves. “Go get your own, you bum.”
The other kid, shorter but also skinny, looked Brandon up and down. “You live in D30 with Katrina?”
Brandon didn’t want to talk about Katrina. He was thirsty, that was the problem. “Come on, fifty cents apiece.” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a dollar.
“Yeah, she said you cut your own TV cord with a knife because you thought it was a snake.”
There had been a snake. Brandon had seen it wriggling along the wall behind the dresser. He pulled that shit out and went after it with a machete, not a knife. The TV cord happened to be in the way, which is probably why the snake escaped. Brandon had been sleeping ever since with a rope looped on the floor around his bed because he heard that rope repels snakes.
He threw the dollar down on the pavement and picked up the fuller of the Mountain Dews. It was lukewarm and corrosively fizzy on the raw tissues of his gullet, but still wet. He drank every drop in one brain-dazzling guzzle.
The short kid picked up the dollar while the tall one claimed the other soda.
“Hey, I paid for that,” Brandon argued.
“I never said I’d sell you my soda, freak.”
“Then give my money back.”
The short one said, “That Mountain Dew cost a dollar,” and put it in his pocket.
The sun bounced off the pavement and hurt Brandon’s bloodshot eyes. It was a clear blue day with white puffy clouds scudding through the June sky. Back in the apartment, he had sunglasses and suddenly he needed them. “I’ll be back for my money, punk.” Brandon turned to go. He heard the kids laughing, but he didn’t turn around because he really wanted sunglasses before he did anything else.
When he opened the door to the apartment, Cat turned around from its perch on the windowsill, leaped down, and approached him meowing. “What do you want?” he asked the black and white creature that rubbed against his everyday jeans. Katrina said if it were her cat, she would have named it Marble, but it wasn’t her cat; it was a cat he found and named Cat. “You want some food?” He didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl.
Cat wanted some food. Brandon poured some dry cat food in the red dish in the kitchen and rinsed the blue dish to fill it with fresh water. The litter box smelled ripe but Brandon wasn’t in the mood to change it. He suddenly felt hungry too. He opened the fridge and then the pantry. His shelf held a box of Jiffy cornbread mix and a cellophane bag wrapped around a finger’s worth of stale pretzels. Katrina’s shelf had ramen noodles and cornflakes, neither of which sounded appealing. She had some leftover pizza in the fridge, but she’d marked the number of leftover slices on the box top so he couldn’t take any. But sometimes there were really big slices. Maybe he could cut one in half and fool her. Or he could cut a sliver off of every slice, spread the damage around.
She had ordered vegetarian because she knew he hated it, the wilted looking tomatoes, the slimy bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions. He ought to throw it away just for being vegetarian, but then he’d have to listen to the bitch. He put the pizza back in the fridge, knocking his pocket against the door. The busted hammer. He remembered his mission.
He tossed the pile of clothes in the corner of his room, looking for his box, a small wooden box the size of a coffee cup that he’d made in shop class years ago. Instead he found a pint of E & J that was still a third full. It was the best thing to happen all day. He hadn’t known he owned any brandy. He sat on the bed and took a big swig and then another. His perceptions were on a dimmer switch that turned immediately brighter. What he needed next was a glass of ice. He capped the bottle and shuffled to the kitchen.
He found the wooden box behind the plants on the chest of drawers in the living room. He sat down on the shredded blue sofa and took a sip of iced brandy. He had the hammer’s head and the hammer’s handle laid out on the coffee table. He sat down his glass and clutched the box between his knees. The door opened and Katrina walked in.
Brandon startled. “What are you doing home?”
“It’s five o’clock, you idiot. Do you know what a clock is?” She dropped her purse and two shopping bags and plopped into the chair by the door. Her thin calves stuck out like Q-tips, her ankles swollen above black work heels.
It was Katrina calling him names like idiot that made Brandon want to hate her. But he wouldn’t say hate because you had to love your cousin. “I know what time it is.”
“What did you do all day? Is that a hammerhead?”
He looked down at the object in his hand. Katrina was the idiot. “You mind your business and I’ll mind mine.”
His cousin made a face. “Smells like you need to change the litter. It stinks all the way in here.”
Cat was his cat, not hers. “Eat your slimy pizza and don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t make me call Grandma again.”
Their grandmother paid his part of the rent. Katrina was always calling her and telling lies, like Brandon got drunk and threw knives at the kitchen cabinets, or he climbed on the roof and passed out, or he turned his stereo up full blast at three in the morning. His grandma loved him but she couldn’t handle any trouble; it made her get shaky and shrill. She would say, “Brandon, baby, I love you but you can’t do those things. If Katrina moves out, you’ll be homeless too. Do you hear me, baby? Do you hear me?”
He didn’t throw knives at the cabinets; he threw them at the floor when he had a fight with his online girlfriend in Arizona. Katrina never told the whole truth. “Leave Grandma out of this. I’ll take care of it.” But he wanted to bust open the box first. He squeezed his knees to hold it steady and rapped at the padlock with the hammerhead. The nails holding the latch barely moved in the wood.
“What are you doing?”
“Opening this box,” he mumbled, using the claw of the hammer to try to pry the latch the rest of the way, but there wasn’t enough leverage. He had nailed the latch on tight.
“Why don’t you just unlock it?”
He didn’t want to tell her he dropped the key and give her another excuse to disrespect him. “Why are you worried about me? Worry about yourself.” Brandon took the broken hammer handle and jammed it under the latch. Pressuring it as hard as he could, the box popped up from clenched knees and hit him in the chin, causing him to bite his tongue. “Damn,” he said, salving the pain with another swallow of brandy.
“I can’t stand this. I have groceries to put away. Don’t forget to change the litter.” The chair exhaled as Katrina got up and trudged with her shopping bags to the kitchen.
Adios, Brandon thought. He gripped the padlock and pulled.
The latch gave and the box opened, the baggie inside flying up in the air, the weed it held scattering across the living room floor.
“No,” Brandon shouted, dropping everything and falling to his knees. Tears filled his sore eyes; what a shitty day, crawling around and trying to salvage a little weed from crap all over a floor.
“Are you okay?” Katrina asked, sounding tired in the kitchen doorway.
“Leave me alone, just leave me alone,” Brandon shouted too loud. Cat looked down from the windowsill, sleek body following the gaze, dropping and padding toward Brandon, suddenly stopping and pawing around.
“Get out of here, stupid.” He swatted Cat and connected, causing the animal to fly sideways and yowl.
“Brandon,” Katrina demanded, “you didn’t mean to hurt your cat.”
He hadn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching out for Cat, but it darted down the hall. He shouted, “Fuck,” and balled up his fist to punch the stupid floor.
The next thing he knew, Katrina was bending over him. She patted him on the shoulder. “Brandon, you need to calm down. I’m making mac and cheese. Have you eaten today? Do you want some?”
At the mention of his favorite food, his heart flooded with the knowledge that Katrina was his cousin for life. Whenever they were little and stayed with Grandma, they dipped their graham crackers in the same bowl of milk. He reached up to give her a grappling hug.
His sudden roughness caused Katrina to wince, her hand touching the left side of her chest. “Damn, that hurt.”
“Sorry,” Brandon said, remembering the cyst. “Did you go to the doctor?”
“It’s not good news. I don’t want to talk about it.” She hugged her thin body, her streaked blonde hair flat and stringy, mascara smeared beneath one eye. “Do you want some mac and cheese or not?”
“I might have to call Grandma and tell her you’re sick.” Brandon spied a bud amid the floor’s detritus, enough for a bowl or two. He snagged it and said, “Tell me. What did the doctor say?”
“If you really want to know, it could be a tumor. I have to have a CT scan.” She shook her head and looked at the floor.
“Shit,” he said. “That’s some shit, for real.” When Katrina was a kid, she could climb any tree, balance on any fence rail. He looked at the bud. “You wanna smoke?”
She snorted a laugh. “That’s all you got? Brandon, you’re pathetic.”
Calling him names again, even though they were cousins. “Hey, that’s not playing nice.”
“Try again, jelly bean. I just told you I might have cancer.” She laughed so it almost sounded like crying. “Please, let me be the one who calls Grandma.”
“Don’t even tell her.” Grandma would get upset and freak out, though it was only because she was old. She used to get crazy with them, playing in the sprinkler in her bathing suit, finger painting, sugar cookies cut into snowmen and stars. “Hey,” he said, “do you remember me?”
“What?” Katrina had turned toward the kitchen.
“What do you remember about me when I was a kid? Like, what do you remember about us?”
“I remember you wet the bed, and you cried if I touched your fork at dinner. You acted like a baby, just like you do now.”
He wasn’t a baby; he was a grown man. “Don’t like it when you call me names.”
Katrina put her hands on her hips. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m going to make boxed pasta for dinner now.”
When she was out of the room, Brandon looked for his lighter but all he could find was the fireplace lighter that Katrina bought to light the charcoal the last time she grilled burgers, right around the time of his birthday. She was a good cousin, a good person, even if she called him names. He sat on the ragged blue couch and packed a bowl, smoke expanding like a small, swirling universe above the coffee table when he exhaled. The least he could do was help Katrina out. After dinner, he would change Cat’s litter so it wouldn’t stink in the apartment. He would buy some cat treats to say sorry to Cat for taking a swing. He would throw away the broken hammer and look around for a broom. If there was one in the house, he didn’t know it. He didn’t know how much a broom cost. He could probably find one on a porch somewhere, if he looked around. Sweeping the living room would make everyone happy; maybe he’d find the key. If he did, he knew what he would do. He’d throw the stupid thing away.
Suzanne Heagy teaches at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Pleiades, Untamed Ink, Dos Passos Review, Poetry Southeast, Oregon Review, Lynx Eye, Whetstone, and Horizons, the annual publication of the South Carolina Writers Guild, and in annual poetry anthologies by Uphook Press. Her novel, Love Lets Us Down, was a finalist in Sol Books Prose Selection Series 2008. She is currently fiction editor at Kestrel, the literary and arts journal at Fairmont State.