Today’s post is coming to you courtesy of Kathy Pories, Senior Editor at Algonquin and Senior Editor of our annual New Stories from the South series (now in its 19th year!). She gets to soak up loads of short stories when making selections for the series and once a month she’ll share a favorite with us right here. And now, without further ado, here’s Kathy…
Many reviewers have pointed out that this year’s New Stories from the South trains its focus on Katrina and its aftermath. While this is true for many of the stories, the anthology also includes stories that are not related to Katrina in any way, but are simply standout stories. Steve Marion‘s “Touch Touch Me,” for example. In this story told by a lonely overweight reporter, he and a friend manage to pick up two ex-convict women and end up in the unlikeliest of places, a deserted supermarket. It’s there that we finally understand how this reporter sees himself in one of the convicts–and where the cryptic title of the story suddenly becomes clear.
Gerald said it was fun to drive by the jail on a Saturday night to see if any ladies had bailed out. He called it F-Blocking. Once he had driven Alexander County north to south and west to east and found it empty as ever, Gerald would say, We are liable to have to resort to F-Blocking.
Liable to, said a reporter, crinkling his can of beer.
Gerald was master of high jinks. It had been Gerald who rearranged the letters on the dress-shop sign to read thirty-nine kinds of tight ass. He had transformed this reporter into a reporter. Last month, this reporter was a bagger, bagging with Gerald at Food City, until the help ad was clipped and he began to ask, Have you applied yet? Have you gone down there yet? Are you a newshound yet?
No no no no, said a reporter until Gerald with his own car forced him into the inky air of the newspaper office and this reporter emerged assigned to the Connie Mack Tournament that weekend at the American Legion Field.
Remember, said Gerald, you don’t say I. You say, A reporter. That is the first thing to learn about journalism. Everything else starts from that.
Gerald was up on journalism. He read the newspaper every day. He was up on all topics.
Look, said Gerald, waving the newspaper with Connie Mack inside. Lookahere.
But it may have been that summer with Gerald when a reporter chose his obesity. He may have selected a future of obscene fattitude, extraneous girth, additional gravity, because something was wrong, he was told later. Something was missing. But it did not seem so. But it may have been. A reporter, watching Gerald pop open the official brown bag of Food City, which his father had popped before him, may have made his choice, and not even known it. The man died at forty-eight, said Gerald. Died. People at Food City called Gerald Prince Gerald. He was manager apparent.
On the curb, between two empty patrol cars, stood a couple of girls. In F-Blocking, the idea was to find some who didn’t have a ride, or, best of all, had a ride coming but if given the opportunity might choose a different ride. This, Gerald said, had produced memorable evenings in the past. This reporter could not see the girls very well in the dark. Gerald stopped, turned down the radio. They came up, one forwardly, the other cautiously. The forward one got hold of Gerald’s door.
You all don’t have a cigarette, do you? she said. She held her trembling hands against her chest as endearingly as a withdrawal baby.
Gerald kept a carton of cigarettes for F-Blocking. He was rendered open access to cartons of cigarettes through his Food City principality. In a few seconds, the girls were in the back seat smoking. Gerald went ahead and smoked, too, even though he didn’t really smoke.
This looks kind of funny with the girls in the back and the boys in the front, Gerald said, slowing down. Switch with her, Marlin. By her it seemed he meant the one that talked, so a reporter opened his door but the cautious one had taken off running. She hadn’t even waited for the car to stop. The forward one and Gerald went running after her. Gerald’s cigarette bounced on the gravel. The tail of his sport coat flapped. It was a wide open field. This reporter felt big and empty as he ran, so absent everybody else ran through him and sped away like rabbits. The forward girl caught her partner and they swung round and round until they both bent over as if they were sick or very tired. Gerald had stopped way behind. He was winded. He had the beginnings of a gut but he wore it high enough that it seemed athletic and he was always very clean as if just from a shower. A reporter had barely made it off the road. Gerald watched them as if this were the best evening of the season. He turned around and stage-whispered, Thing One and Thing Two. At first, the cautious girl slung her arm wearily as if shaking off a pesky insect, but the forward girl moved closer to her and pulled a little the way a pony is straightened and finally they both came back toward us. The cautious girl was trembling and the trembles would grow into waves of shaking. Her teeth chattered in the middle of summer.
Let’s all tell our stories, said Gerald after we were back on the road.
They ain’t much to tell, said the girl in the seat next to him. But she said it as if there were really very very much to be told. You go, Penny.
I ain’t going, said Penny.
I knowed she wouldn’t, said the forward girl. She was not more attractive than Penny, but more sparkly. This reporter deduced that she was the kind of girl who wouldn’t stay still. You all go.
Penny, said Gerald. Oh, Penny, when you came and you gave what I’d taken. But I sent you away, oh Penny.
I think that is Mandy, said a reporter.
I don’t know where to start, said the forward girl, as if she had never received such a generous offer.
Her name is Anita, said Penny.
I could start there.
I’ll start, said Gerald. My motto is, Quit the grinning and shed the linen. He was looking in the rearview mirror, as if to gauge Penny’s reaction, but he said, You all know anybody with one headlight?
They were quiet. This reporter noted the lack of backward looks.
The one headlight had come up very close, so close that its light picked up Penny’s hair and showed her skin, so close it seemed to have heat. Gerald took off flying. Preacher Road had a long straight part through the flatwoods. The flatwoods flipped all around. Inside, a reporter felt bent over and trembling like Penny. The car went so fast his weightlessness made a reporter remember how little he knew Gerald. A bunch of nights tiding around Alexander County, some bag-popping, an invitation to sports journalism, was all. He was interested in history. But he seemed as if he needed something, some nutrient, that he was supposed to have gotten when he was a little child, but now he wasn’t taking it from anybody.
Much better, said Gerald, slowing down.
The headlight was gone, but a reporter’s heart still flew. He saw a black railroad trestle over water. Anita had helped herself to a beer. A reporter wished he could get drunk like a normal person. It would have helped in a case like this, but he had discovered that he could not. It was as if he had a race inside and nothing, especially not beer, could slow it down. He would drink of the beer and a picture appeared of his Mama and his Daddy, not a still picture but one in which they could be seen blinking and moving slightly, even scratching, though they stood posed as if in a still picture, and his Mama and Daddy, with whom he still resided, would not leave him to enter drunkenness. Gerald, with his Daddy dead at forty-eight and his Mama with whom he ate lunch every day, took hours to get drunk and many, many beers, but finally he would be drunk. A reporter never could reach it, and now with two F-Block girls and one headlight the race was even worse and his wish to get drunk even harder upon him.
Babe is catatonic, said Gerald. Don’t get catatonic on us, Babe. Look at him.
Anita turned around and hung over the back of the seat.
Aw, she crooned.
I’m all right, said a reporter.
How come you call him Babe? Anita asked.
Look at what a Babe he is, said Gerald. Babe is a big journalist. He works for the paper.
Oh God, said Anita. He ain’t going to put us in the paper, is he?
He might, said Gerald.
h God, said Anita. I’m jealous. Penny got the best one.
What paper? said Penny, dismissively.
The Alexander County Plain Talk, said Gerald.
That ain’t no paper, said Penny.
Anyways, said Anita, settling back in her seat in the correct direction, I got one of them bad moles. They done told me and ever since they did I been scared half to death.
Anita! Penny called out as if water were carrying her away.
It’s okay, said Anita.
It was quiet for a few seconds.
You ain’t kidding, are you? said Gerald.
I wisht to hell I was.
What did they tell you?
I done told you what they told me.
I mean what else did they tell you?
That they didn’t know how long I had. Not knowing how long I have is the worst part.
Can’t they do nothing?
I don’t know. I didn’t go back. I ain’t got no money.
Plus you were scared, said Gerald.
Gerald became quiet again the way he did when something interested him deeply. Anita opened another beer.
They got treatments and stuff, Gerald said finally.
I ain’t got no treatment-and-stuff money, said Anita.
We could raise the money, said Gerald. We could do it at the store. We could put your picture on a jar and have everybody that came in give a dollar.
Or more than a dollar if they can, said Gerald. Food City.
You work at Food City?
We both do.
I thought Babe worked for the paper.
He has a day job.
I figured he did, said Penny.
You’ll help us, won’t you, Babe? Gerald said. Babe can sing. We could have a benefit with all proceeds going toward treatment.
Sing something, Babe, said Anita.
How great thou art, this reporter sang. How great thou art.
He stretched out the last thou.
Damn, said Anita.
Babe can call a game, too, said Gerald. You ought to hear him call a game. We could have us a benefit ball game with Babe calling the plays.
I don’t know nothing about sports, said Anita. She turned around again to look, longer this time, long enough for several lights to slide beneath the skin of her face and emerge from her hair, long enough to suggest that she and this reporter were of the same kind. Though she knew nothing of sport and this reporter could not forget anything of it, they were kin, kin enough, probably, for her to know The Fact, and she stared at him with a fondness discounted by kinship, and a reporter stared back asking with his eyes if she could really know his Fact, the one whose origin even he did not know, and he felt her answer, Yes, because her mole put them in the same family.
It seemed as if a reporter had been born knowing The Fact. It must have been told to him very early, by a heart doctor, or by his Mama in one of the times she tried to talk to him. It could have been taken out from under his Daddy’s bed like a weapon. However he knew The Fact he knew best how to avoid it. From The Fact he turned. He backpedaled. Spun, head-faked. Knew not even that he knew The Fact. If all of life whirls round it, never touching it, is there even a Fact at all? Isn’t the whirl it made the real part?
What are you going to do with your life, Babe? Anita said.
Get fat, a reporter replied.
She giggled. They came out at Jack’s. The girls exited like long-distance travelers and went in Jack’s bathroom.
Attaboy, said Jack. He meant the girls. He was standing at the counter watching a tiny television. Everybody loved Jack. He used to be a county judge.
We picked them up at the jail, said Gerald.
Ah shit? Jack said.
They bonded out, said Gerald.
Jack said, Ah shit, but it was because he had hit the wrong key on the cash register. He began to figure it upon a pad. Gerald gave him the money and handed the beer to a reporter. Attaboy, Jack said.
I should have waited to see if the girls need something, said Gerald.
Jack looked confused as if neither of his two phrases applied.
Ah shit, a reporter said.
A truck with one headlight was parked next to us in the gravel lot.
What the fuck do you think you are doing? said a man next to the truck.
What the fuck do you think you are doing? said Gerald.
The man pushed Gerald and Gerald pushed the man back and they started fighting. They were down in the gravels. Suddenly the girls were out and Anita was kicking fighters. She would wait a second and backup and try to aim for the right one and the man was getting kicked way more than Gerald. One of the kicks got him right in the face and he jerked back and quit. Anita ran back to the car on her tiptoes as if her feet were sore. She had lost one shoe. It had gone flying off her kicking foot, but not when she kicked. Instead, it had flown off backward in her windup. When Gerald and the man separated, the man was bleeding hard from his nose and mouth. You bunch of fucking bastards he hollered and blood splattered out. Jack had come out with his ball bat.
You fucked my teeth, said the man, trying to open his truck door. Fuck you fuckers.
Fuck yourself! Gerald hollered.
The man jumped back in his truck and tore out, throwing gravels all over the car. One stung a reporter in the lip. A squeal came out like a girl’s. Gerald had his arms raised in a gesture of surrender toward Jack.
Attaboy? asked Gerald.
Ah shit, said Jack.
In the car, Gerald was breathing hard and had dirt all over his sport coat, which had one lapel turned up.
Did you see me fight? Gerald asked. I was fighting that guy. It was one hell of a fight. That fucker. Who was he?
I don’t know, said Anita.
As he drove, Gerald and Anita started laughing hard. They would quit for a few seconds and then one would giggle and the other would start back up. Before long all were laughing so hard it hurt.
Babe is injured, said Anita. She was pointing to a reporter’s lip.
How great thou art, he sang. How . . . great . . . thou . . . art.
In a break in the laughter, Anita hopped over and gave Gerald a big kiss.
What was that for? he asked, and she said, I don’t know. I guess I put a big wet rag on everything.
No you didn’t, said Gerald.
Ah shit, a reporter said.
Attaboy, said Gerald.
On a balmy night in August, a reporter announced, the group of four would go one on one against the world. The world and its fucker. With the fucker of one headlight they would grapple, and the outcome would remain unknown until the final seconds. Would it be the thrill of Attaboy? Or the agony of Ah shit?
Everybody howled, except for Penny, whose stomach seemed to be worse. Gerald pulled behind Food City, where the big trucks backed and idled. The store was closed but he had a key to the heavy back door. Inside in the dark, Gerald found the light switch and the lights popped and hummed. Penny was skinnier than expected and older. Skinny Penny, a reporter thought. Anita had large almond eyes with no rims around them. She was deathly skinny herself.
Are you hungry? Gerald asked a reporter.
I could eat, he said.
Get the box, said Gerald.
Gerald and a reporter kept a box of cakes and candies that had been discarded. The girls were amazed. It was a large box. A reporter lofted a double sweet roll with cherry.
That makes me sick to look at, said Penny, holding her stomach, which pooched out even though she was so skinny
A reporter slid off the wrapper and began to eat. Penny looked as if she would puke. She and a reporter had not made friends the way Gerald and Anita had.
Strolling through each aisle of the store in its half-light, the girls looked at everything and the smells of the store were the same smells of daytime and childhood. Penny took a bottle of Pepto, and Anita selected a jumbo Slim Jim jerky. Gerald got some Carmex for a reporter’s lip. It was a time of mirth.
What I remember the most about Daddy, Gerald said, was something he would say. He’d say he got into it with so and so, and he thought they were going to have to take it to the road. That meant he thought he was going to have to whip somebody’s ass.
Gerald was standing still.
We took it to the road, didn’t we? Anita said, chewing.
Gerald didn’t say anything, but he had heard.
We took it to the road in memory of your dad.
In the back, he clicked open his boxcutter and sliced a cardboard mat for us to eat upon.
They said I write too much, a reporter said. They have to cut it back.
Gerald gave a look of amazement. Can’t write too much, he said. He turned on a radio. It was much easier to hear than it was when the store was open.
Anita, said Gerald, where is your mole?
He asked it in a salesmanlike way. Anita swallowed. A reporter could not distinguish whether she was upset because she had forgotten it in the mirth or if she had to think of a place where it could be.
Anita turned around and pulled up her shirt but she couldn’t hold her arm long so she had Penny take over. We all looked. It was right on one of the knobs of her backbone. It seemed to have fallen down within the skin as if the skin were not substance but air or cloud. A reporter felt as if he had been closed into a too tiny room.
It’s blue, Gerald said.
Tears dropped off Penny’s cheeks and hit the cardboard. I’m scared to death, she said.
Gerald got the Polaroid that was used to take the employee of the month and had Penny stand up next to the wall. She wiped off her tears and smiled. The picture slid out and she wanted to see it.
Let’s go get them jars, said Gerald.
They went off to look and left a reporter and Penny alone and he didn’t know what to do because she was crying and shaking again. If she tried to talk, her teeth chattered. So a reporter unsheathed another cherry sweet roll. Tonight, he wanted to eat on top of eating. It was like swinging a sword. Penny kept saying something and gradually he figured out it was the word me and finally he saw that it was, Look me.
Look me? a reporter said.
She had kicked off her shoes and taken off her pants and shirt to reveal her bones. Look me over for one of them moles, she said.
I can’t do that, a reporter said.
I ain’t taking off my panties, she said.
But she took off her panties. For a second, a reporter was proud. A girl had taken off her clothes, including her panties, right in front of him. It was a first. He thought for a girl to take off her clothes she had to like him, and he didn’t like her back, so that made him feel blessed for a second. Another thought he had was of Daddy’s magazine. He didn’t hide it. It lay on the coffee table each month until Mama finally threw it away. But the bones in front of this reporter bore little resemblance. She had turned over on the cardboard. Start on my back, she said, shivering. My back is what I’m afraid of. I can’t see my back. Ribs cut through her back, too. A reporter leaned down. smelled like beer, cigarettes, and Pepto.
Don’t touch me, she said, chattering.
Don’t worry, a reporter replied.
I mean you can touch me. Don’t touch touch me.
A reporter felt the emptiness of looking. It made him want to eat. He touched her and her flesh. She kept asking, Do you see anything? Do you see anything? They are so much I can’t see. He told her no. He put his fingers in the slots of her ribs and they were almost too big to fit. He tried his hands all over her, but they were still empty.
Look in the back of my head, she said. They can get in your hair.
This next part a reporter remembered years later when his Daddy took him into the basement to weigh him on the feed scale. He had bought the feed scale expressly for this purpose. If a reporter was going to fatten to this hilarious size, by God he was going to be weighed. He was going to see to it. What happened was a reporter was draped over her. Years later, aboard the feed scale, he could still feel her breath blow out as if from a birthday balloon, and his whole self, including future girth, washing over her. I need to hold her down, he thought. I need to absorb her. At first, she tried to lie still as if he were conducting another part of the scan, some part she knew nothing about but needed, but then she tried to squirm and roll so a reporter had to hold on tight. He was lifted off, the way a crane lifts very heavy things, and she scrambled up naked and Anita was standing there with an armload of empty jars like a cluster of bubbles.
What are you all doing? she said.
Penny sobbed and sucked hard between sobs. I wanted him to look me for them moles, she said, but he got all over me.
Honey, it’s your own fault, said Anita. You can’t do like that.
She didn’t want him to, said Gerald, turning away. Let’s let her get dressed.
Penny got her clothes. They were impossibly small. A reporter tried to give her some sweet roll. He touched it right to her mouth but she turned her head away.
Stephen Marion is a native of east Tennessee, where he works as a newspaper journalist. His stories were published recently in the Oxford American and Tin House. He is also the author of a novel, Hollow Ground.