Issue > Fiction
Sidney Thompson

Sidney Thompson

Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow. His fiction has appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Carolina Quarterly, Danse Macabre, Flash, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO Fiction, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine.cc, The Southern Review, storySouth and elsewhere.

Antenna Club

Claude found a spot on one of the dark side streets to save parking money, and to save more money he left the keys in the ignition of his upside-down '99 Oldsmobile Alero coupe with no air. Not exactly a family car, but it was the only thing he could find that he could afford before getting married two years ago. The A/C didn't work even then. Now he could afford a little more, and should with a baby on their hands, but the dealership wanted to fuck with him tonight, give him nothing for it, tried to talk him into letting it get repossessed, so fuck it. He had insurance so he damn didn't lock the doors, then darted away, arms swinging in the direction of Dauphin Street, like he was jacked on meth or coke.

On the whole ride over across Mobile Bay, past the U.S.S. Alabama Battleship, and through the tunnel, he'd said fuck it to the radio, leaving it off he was so pissed. With three of four windows down, excluding the driver's side window since the motor had burned out months ago and couldn't be lowered, the air screamed in and screamed out. Well, for the most part.

Jodie didn't say anything when he'd gone to the closet and pulled out his father's old Terminix shirt. Claude had worn it to the Antenna Club as something of a fluke the first time, because it was clean when little else was—nothing more to it than that. Then he liked how it squared his sloping shoulders and provided a perfect blah backdrop for his tats, scrolled around both arms in charcoal gray. Now, it was his club shirt. If it was Friday night, it was Punk Night, and when he went, it went.

When he gave up the ten bucks cover, the back of his hand got stamped with a black ant, which made him appreciate his shirt even more, his father even more, who'd died when Claude was eleven. Some said his father had been the best exterminator in Baldwin County, and Claude Jr. believed it. Going with him under people's houses was like taking a guided tour through a crawlspace habitat museum. Some of Claude's best times as a child were spent that way, with his father speaking no more than necessary to preserve the adventure. Some said Claude was quiet like his father. To him, that was a compliment.

Once inside, that was it for thinking until the set was over. Without breaks between songs, bleeding together, instinct took over, and it was the same every week, regardless of the band. A rapid drum beat, ringing cymbals, and high-octave strumming—it poured through Claude, hopping now on the concrete slab floor as his arms slung forward and back, cheering tight-fisted and punching out, his head hung, eyes black, and as he bumped into the next guy and the next bumped back, it happened, an elbow to the ribs, a shoulder to the chin, and you trusted the bump and took a breath and you prevailed.

It was very soothing, like if you didn't need your mouth or your ears in a way, because you could cover them and still hear the music the same, like your hearing was elsewhere, like in your pores, where the music was vibrating. Then, before you knew it, you didn't need your eyes either, and that's how most people danced, with their eyes closed, too, like they were all termite nymphs boiling over each other in the colony. It was weird.

* * *

Danielle Burnham stood against the wall, out of the way of the dancers, scouting for old high school friends, when her eyes passed over Claude and then returned and lingered there.

At first glance, he seemed unique, if not ornate, or maybe she'd spent too long studying samples of tribal artwork at the tattoo parlor down the street, or outside just now admiring the ironwork all along the storefronts and balconies. Antique lattices of thin, black, graceful vines. As she found herself studying him, she found he was actually the center of the action, yet somehow detached from it, refusing to look up, bent over, as if unaware that others were clustered around him, feeding off of him, and as he twisted her way and turned his face ceilingward, showing her his arms, the primitive animal drawings, the horses and bison running, and she thought, Garrett's customer! The cave man!

Then she thought, Garrett! That asshole was supposed to meet her here, but because the dude in the Terminix shirt and that dude's wife and baby had blown out of the box without a word and the car deal was lost, he was off being pissy somewhere else and was missing her once-in-a-lifetime moment. Her tattoo wouldn't be new forever.

She scanned the crowd once more, hoping Angie or Steph or even Alex would appear, please, but coming up empty again, she turned toward the stage. The band was more heavy metal than punk, but the singer was a good screamer, so she began to nod her head, her hip pulsing, as she looked back toward Garrett's customer—a damn cool spirograph of motion. Of course, he wouldn't be able to sit still for a piece-of-shit Chrysler. You know, she wouldn't buy a car from Garrett either.

She liked coming to the Antenna to think and be full of emotion. It was too loud to talk, but you could think about what you were thankful for and be happy about that, and normally there were friends around to act stupid with and hug and laugh with, and in a way they could talk, with their kind of sign language they'd mastered over the years as friends. She looked around once more, telling herself once more, and if she didn't see anyone this time, she'd have to forget them, block them out, and block Garrett out, that asshole.

But the only person who emerged as remotely familiar was again Garrett's customer, now striding from the dance floor and wiping his face on his tattoos. She watched him pass in front of her, and as she stepped forward to motion for his attention, he bent over to pull up his socks, then sprang away, quicker than she could react, in the direction of the bar.

She watched him show his black ant to the bartender, then go into his pocket. She liked his Terminix shirt, a blank canvas. Then with a bottle of Budweiser gripped at the neck, he wove against the grain of traffic, and in the corner near the entrance, where the A/C blew strongest, he lifted his bottle.

"Hey," she said out of habit, stepping in close and waving at him, and though he couldn't hear her, he could see what she was saying, and she was smiling, like he should know who she was. She was pretty enough to remember, with really sharp, uneven bangs, but he didn't remember. He met so many people each day at KFC, where he worked as the day-time assistant manager.

He nodded hi back, and she held up her hands as if holding a tiny steering wheel, then flipped her thumbs up, was giving him a thumbs up for something and arching her eyebrows, making her eyes round, and they were bright blue as blue glass, and she was so pretty he felt uncomfortable looking at her this long, but what was she asking him? If his car outside ran? If it was his? Was it good? Then she motioned toward the entrance, tugged his sleeve, and arched her eyebrows again as she backed away, waving him to follow.

He set his beer on the floor by the door, then outside, passing a cluster of smokers, she laughed and said, "Can you hear me now?"

He smiled. Through the ringing, he could hear her.

"Did everything work out for you? You know, at Hank Hood?" She thought she'd play dumb. She didn't know how else to play it.

He looked away, toward the dark park across the street, and shook his head.

"Too bad," she said. "I remember seeing you there. That's where I work, at the front desk." She laughed to get him to look at her, but he wouldn't. "And then I saw you here. That's funny," she said and laughed again.

He tried to focus between the trees, toward the black cast-iron fountain he knew was in there somewhere.

"You're a good dancer," she said, "and I'd be dancing, too, if I didn't get a tattoo tonight. I don't want people bumping into it, you know?"

He turned to her eyes, then to her slender neck and naked shoulders and arms and, between the thin straps of her top, her unmarked chest. He wiped his forehead with his forearm.

"All my friends bailed on me tonight," she said. "I'm just dying to show somebody. You wanna see it?"

He looked at her eyes again, and she wasn't just pretty. He could like her.

"Sure," he said, and she bounced away to stand beneath the nearest streetlamp. Then with her right hip swiveled toward him, she lowered the waistband of her skirt and the waistband of her underwear, revealing a bandage the size of a CD box.

She lifted her eyes at him, briefly, then with the hand stamped with a red ant, she began slowly peeling away the bandage until the whole starry compass was in view, bronze and bloody, and smeared with A & D ointment.

"Can you see in the center it's a rose and the fleur-de-lis is where north is?"

He leaned in closer, and her skin was so beautifully white where the needle hadn't touched that the impulse occurred to him to lean in even further and bite her hip the way he sometimes wanted to bite Lacy's baby toes or his wife's ears. "Very nice," he said. He stepped back and watched her press the bandage back in place, then ease up her waist bands.

"I'm so excited." She clapped her hands. "I designed it myself."

"Cool," he said.

"Yeah, I'm an art student, or want to be. School's kinda on hold right now, but I'm saving up a little and planning on enrolling in the fall."

He nodded. "So where'd you go to high school?"

"Robertsdale," she said.

"Really? I'm a golden bear, too," he said. He thought she might follow up by telling him what year she'd graduated, but she was suddenly distracted, going into her purse, when he hadn't even noticed she was carrying a purse.

"Here, this'll be fun," she said, taking out her cell phone. "On the night of my first tattoo, two alums meeting for the first time at the Antenna. Perfect, don't you think?" She pressed the button to turn the camera on and looked at him. "You don't mind, do you?"

He shrugged as if he could go either way, but it mattered more to him than he let on. He wanted with passion to be in her picture, and it wouldn't matter if he ever saw the picture or saw this girl again. A picture said a moment was important. So his day of failure wouldn't end on failure. It would end with this, he thought, hugging up close to the first girl he'd met since meeting his wife that he would date if he could. Not that he wanted to or was down that he couldn't. It was just nice to learn his life wasn't over. That he ought to keep living. Keep trying. That he could still matter to someone, even when he couldn't afford shit.

* * *

Kim Mickel had just pitched another round of beer to everyone from the mini-fridge that stood behind his desk in the wood-paneled sales office when Garrett's phone cranked up with Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Chemical, Shane, and J.T. chimed with laughter as Garrett sang in unison, "Turn it up," then strutted a hip-thrusting air guitar in the midst of them. It was as if it was a mutual discovery at that moment of honky-tonk reverie that this was their dealership's fight song, their anthem. "Big wheels keep on turning." Of course!

After the ring tone had looped twice, Garrett gave it up with a chuckle and cracked the tab on his beer. He took a chug, then unlocked his phone with a casual swipe, wondering what filthy message or, better, what pic Danielle had sent him now, this late.

"Look who likes my tattoo!" the text read, and then above it a grainy photo popped up. By the time Garrett's eyes had focused, he'd forgotten he was standing in the largest Dodge/Chrysler dealership in all of Lower Alabama, right smack in the heart of downtown Mobile, the hottest gross market around, where ups swarmed like gnats and cheap product grew on trees. What the fuck!

* * *

Claude didn't expect to see that cute girl from Hank Hood again, but on his way out of the club and down the street, feeling loose and danced out, ears pounding, he did glance around, and then he tilted his head, crossed his fingers, and prayed a prayer of few words. Only please please please, because he didn't want to ever be accused of asking for too much.

Once he rounded the last corner and it was so dark the sidewalk was no lighter than the street, he stopped and took a breath, bracing himself against joy and disappointment alike. He prayed one last please, then looked up.

But it was still there. The Alero was still his and no one else's. He guessed it would always be.

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