Lighten Up

by Jeff Brandt

                                               

“So get this. This jackass has the nerve to ask me why my mom likes dressing up our dog, and I’m like, how the hell should I know? Just because she’s my mom doesn’t mean I have to understand her. So she likes little Taco Bell dogs that wear little red sweaters. I like eating black licorice. Some people like wearing scarves all the time or building model ships inside glass bottles. To each his own, you know?”

“Or her own.” Stan knocks the table twice with his top knuckles. “I check.”

“Right,” says Mueller. He yawns and rubs his head, feeling thousands of needles of buzzed hair brush against his fingers. “Or her own. Well, ol buddy ol pal. I guess it’s now or never.” Mueller thrusts his towers of chips toward the center of the table. The clay discs splash on the green cloth, some of them flipping onto their sides and rolling halfway across the table.

Stan scoots back in his seat looks up from his cards. He narrows his beady brown eyes and glares at Mueller, shifting his line of sight from Mueller to his miniscule chip stack and back. Chip stack and back. Dex and his friend from Advanced Calculus pause their video game and look over from the couch. A flush from the bathroom breaks the silence.

“You think that stare’s gonna work?” Mueller rumbles with laughter, leans back in his wooden chair, two legs off the ground. “You can’t penetrate into my mind with that. I could have anything in the world right now, and you’d have no idea.” He gulps a frothy swash of rootbeer.

“That so?” Stan raises his eyebrows and cocks his head to the side.

“Yep.”

“You lovebirds plan on finishing this game tonight?” Matt asks. He’s hosting this event in his two-bedroom apartment. “If we’re going to have a second tournament, you need to wrap it up. This isn’t chess, Stan. Either call or fold, already.”

“Seriously,” says Dex, now looking at the TV screen again and mashing the buttons on his controller. “Are you guys gonna make out or finish the game? Some of us here have eight o’clock classes tomorrow.”

“Haaah! That’s your own damn fault,” says Mueller. “If only you were a master scheduler like me. I’ve got no classes before 11, and I’m one-and-done on Fridays.”

“Just give me a second here,” says Stan. “I’ve got a read on him.”

“Oh you do, do you?”

“Yeah, I think I do. I saw what you just did.” A half-smile spreads on Stan’s face, and he nods at Mueller.

“What did I just do?”

“The thing.”

“What thing?” Mueller leans forward in his seat, his jelly belly brushing against the table. The front two chair legs squeak against the linoleum.

“You know. The thing.” Stan looks around at everyone in the room. No one is listening. “You know what I’m talking about, Matt. That twitch Mueller has?”

“Wha?”

“You know how Mueller twitches when he gets nervous?”

“He’s got a twitch?” asks Matt.

“Yeah, he like—”

“Me?” Mueller interrupts. “With a twitch? No way. Hah.” Leaning back in his chair again, he waves his index finger at Stan. “Real active imagination this guy’s got, huh? Stan should take up a career in science fiction/fantasy writing. Write some massive tome called The Golden Wheel or The Compass of Time or something about half-horse-half-men guys who save tri-tittied damsels in distress from intergalactic cannibals.”

“Whatever, man.” Stan lifts his chip stack in the fingers of his down-turned hand and lets them fall to the table one by one in rapid succession, repeating this motion again and again. “Whatever. You guys probably think I’m crazy, but I know what I’m talking about, which is probably why I placed in the money and none of you did. Mueller does this thing when he goes all-in with nothing. He like. . . His face lights up. And then he curls his lower lip in and bites it, ever-so-slightly.”

Mueller applauds with his fingertips.

“Whoa! You got me there, Freud! Tune in next week when Doctor Stanley Patterson analyzes the psychological significance of blinking your eyes too often.”

A bed-headed roommate pops open a can of soda in the kitchen. Dex hurls his video game controller to the floor and curses at his friend for converting on 4th down. Matt sighs and rolls his eyes.

“Hah! Look at you now, loosening your collar,” Stan says. “Getting a little nervous, eh?”

“I’m not loosening my collar, numbnuts. My neck itches. I need to shave this—”

“I call. You show first.”

“My pleasure.” Mueller flicks his cards to the center of the table to reveal an ace and a queen, which both pair up with cards on the table.

“Hahaha! I knew it. All in with two pairs! So typical of you, Muell. Take a look at this!” Stan pulls his cards back with his fingertips, lifts and rotates his hand, and smacks the cards face up on the table. Hundreds of chips rattle. “Oh man. What’s that one neighborhood in Queens called again? Oh yeah, that’s right: Flushing!” He grabs an imaginary toilet handle and twists it. “Whoosh!”

Matt lifts his eyebrows and nods his head. Mueller bites his lower lip.

“Nice,” says Matt.

“What do they have?” Dex asks.

“Mueller has two pair—aces and queens, and Stan flopped a flush with a jack and seven of spades,” says Matt. “Only way Mueller can win is if the he rivers another ace or queen.”

“How do you like me now? I told you, man. I can read you like a book.”

“This just in from the AP news wire: STAN PATTERSON FORGETS ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN ON THE RIVER, USES TIRED CLICHÉ. This hand ain’t over yet. I’ve still got hope. After all, there’s uhh—” he counts on his fingers several times “—what, like five ways to win? I’m golden.” Mueller says this with his hand over his mouth and his ring finger hooking around his chin.

“Try four,” says Matt.

“Whatever.”

Matt tosses the burn card to the side and slaps the final card down: an Ace of clubs.

“Oh. My. God.” Stan scrunches up his face and tugs on clumps of his dark curly hair with each hand.

“Mueller’s made the full house, Aces full of Queens!”

“God DAMN it.”

Dex peers over his shoulder again. “Uh oh. Is that the sound of Stan bitching after receiving the bad beat special?”

Mueller’s face lights up again. “Sure is!” He begins a slow-motion victory lap around the apartment, sitting down again only after receiving a high-five from everyone. Except Stan. He refuses.

“That was bullshit, Muell. Bullshit. And you know it. This kind of shit happens all the time. The odds in my favor at the turn, royally screwed on the river.”

“Awww. Now Stanweey,” Mueller coos and thrusts out his lower lip. “Why can’t you just be happy for me? It’s a game of chance, y’know? And anyway, that’s what you get for calling my pre-flop raise with Jack-Seven. I mean, Jesus Christ on a crutch—I don’t care if it’s suited; that’s trash, my man.”

Matt nudges Stan. “He’s got a point there.”

“You know what?” Stan throws up his hands and bolts to his feet. His chair flies backward and grates across the dusty floor. “Fuck you guys. And especially you.” Stan points a quivering finger at the poker tournament champ, who winks back at Stan. Stan growls and mutters between his teeth: “Sometimes I wonder why I associate with you idiots.”

“Oh!” Mueller stands and frowns in an exaggerated upside-down-U, mockingly throwing his chair backwards. “So now I’m an idiot? One minute I’m a clown, the next I’m an idiot. You know what? I think that downgrade was a little steep. You could have gone for something derogatory but still kind of lighthearted, like ‘doofus.’ But nooo, Stan’s gotta be big man wearing the daddy pants making big manly insults. Stan, I’ve got to tell you, hombre, I—”

“Shut the HELL up, Mueller!” On “hell” he reaches with both arms across the corner of the square table and shoves Mueller. “I’m tired of your shit. Everything’s a game to you.”

“A game? . . . You mean like poker?”

“Shut UP.” Stan lands a single hammering blow on the table and storms toward the door.

            “Stan. Settle the fuck down,” says Matt. “Christ.”

            “It’s not just this time, Matt! It’s every time. Every time I call an all-in on the turn, and I have the favored hand, I get raped on the river. And it’s almost always by this cocksucker, too.”

“Stan—”

“Oh, what?” Mueller puffs out his chest. “Now I’m a cocksucker? Geez, Stan. Thanks a lot. After all these years I thought I meant more to you than that. And I’m a cocksucker now?”

            “Yes. You are a cocksucker now. And I’ll tell you what else you are. You’re a—”

            “Oh my friggin God, dude.” Dex hammers his friend’s knee with his fist. “I swear to God that if you run a Quarterback sneak one more time, I will cut your balls off.”

            “And then what will you do with his balls?” Mueller says, turning back toward the TV. “Put them in a lava lamp and watch them float around? Pickle them in a jar for posterity? Buy a foosball table and use them as the soccer balls?”

            “Dude, Mueller,” Dex laughs. “I think there’s something wrong with you, man. You always have some crazy shit to say.”

            “I thought that was part of my charm.” Mueller’s lips lengthen in a coy grin. He jerks his head back to look at Stan and widens his baby blue eyes. He tilts his head to one side and winks.

“Come on, Stanny. You think I’m charming, don’tcha?”

Still frowning, Stan looks down at the table.

“Lighten up, Stan,” says Matt. “You know Mueller. You of all people should know. He’s just fucking with you.”

“Come on, man,” says Dex. “Are you telling me you take this guy seriously?” His eyes dart back to the TV screen. “Don’t even tell me you’re going for the two-point conversion again.”

“What are you guys talking about? I take myself very seriously, and you should, too. All of you. And especially you.” Mueller points at his red-faced friend. “I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t serious. I don’t even fart. That’s how serious I am. What is farting? I wouldn’t even know; I don’t do anything that might be taken as un-serious. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘Serious as a heart attack,’ because one of you sick bastards might think that expression is funny.”

“I’m not in the mood for your shit,” says Stan. “You know what I think? Huh, Mueller? You wanna know?”

“Sure, buddy. Go on and say it.” Mueller rights his chair, plops into it, and crosses his arms.

“I think you talk just to hear yourself.”

“Well! Somebody’s a wittle Gwumpy McWumperson. Did poor wittle Stanny not get his nappy wappy today?”

“Cut it out, Mueller,” says Stan.

“Stanny Poo have a dirty diaper? Stanny Wanny not get to suck his mommy’s big, floppy titty-witties?” Mueller leans forward and cups his hands beside his bellybutton. He licks his thumbs and index fingers and pinches the invisible nipples.

Stan struggles to maintain a straight face. Mueller lifts his cupped hands up and licks the right breast, wiggling the tip of his tongue like a drowning earthworm. In the presence of his friends’ hyena-laughter, Stan forfeits and slaps his knee, allowing himself to chuckle.

“One of these days, someone’s not going to just play along with your jokes,” Stan says. “And I hope I’ll be there to see it and tell you I told you so.”

“There’s the Stan Patterson we know and love.”

“Sometimes I think I want to kill you, Muell.”

“I love you too, Stan.”

 

*          *          *

 

            “Now, Stan. Remember what I said about kicking with your toe?”

            “Umm. I don’t know, Dad. I can’t remember.” Stan bends over and picks up his soccer ball. As he lifts it, he smells the fresh chemical scent of brand new toys. He tosses it into the air, watching to see how many times it spins before he catches it.

            Mr. Patterson rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He slides his cap off for a moment, exposing the shiny top of his head with sparse graying hair surrounding it. The pale winter sun shone on this spot and a glint of light reflected from it, as if his head were made of metal. Stan likes to imagine his father’s bald spot as a hubcap. “How many times do I have to tell you, Stan? You don’t have any control over the ball when you kick it with your toe. Does this sound familiar?”

            “Yeah, Dad,” says Stan without looking at his father, still counting the rotations of the soccer ball.

            “OK, then tell me this: what parts of the foot do we use to kick a soccer ball?”

            “Is it the top of your foot?”

            “And?”

            “Uhhh. I dunno.”

            “Dammit, Stan!” Mr. Patterson lumbers forward and snatches the ball from the air. He points at himself between the eyes and speaks slowly. “Look at me, Stan. The side of your foot. You can also use the side of your foot to hit the soccer ball. I don’t know how many times—” Mr. Patterson trails off in his speech, his green-and-white checkered soccer shorts whipping in the wind as he marches toward the house. He swings the screen door open. “You really need to start watching your brother play more often. If you want to have any hope of getting into the select league, you’re going to have to start taking some pointers from him.” Holding the door open with his toe, Mr. Patterson arches his arms behind his head and thrusts the soccer ball at Stan. The ball bounces once and Stan prepares to catch it, but he misses, and it smacks him in the nose. A sharp pain shoots through Stan’s head. He tries not to cry.

            “Oh. . . OK, Dad,” says Stan. Eyes downcast, he drops to the ground hard, smacking his rear end onto the dry, packed soil with a thud. He waits until his father stops looking and throws the ball backwards into the street. It makes its way to the street gutter and bobbles out of Stan’s sight.

            As Mr. Patterson steps halfway indoors, Stan’s older brother, Ted, sprints out, almost knocking his father over. Alarmed at first, Mr. Patterson regains his balance and smiles like a happy crocodile, baring his jagged, yellowing teeth.

            “Atta boy. You show your brother what hustle is all about.” The screen door whines on its rusty hinges and crashes shut.

            “Hey, Stan! What did Mom and Dad get for your birthday?”

            Stan makes no recognition of Ted, his head still drooping like a wet flower.

            “Stan. Stan? What’s wrong, little bro?”

            “I don’t want to talk,” says Stan, without looking up. He sniffs.

            “Stan. Quit being a baby.”

            “Go away,” Stan whispers, barely audible above the roar of a neighbor’s car passing by.

            “What?”

            “I said, ‘Go away,’ Ted.”

            “What the heck? What’s your problem?” He nears Stan and lays his hand on Stan’s shoulder.
            “I said, go away!” Stan lashes out at his brother from the ground, his face beet red, veins popping out of his neck. He gets up and swings at his brother. Ted giggles while ducking Stan’s awkward, jerky punches. “It’s not funny! Quit laughing at me, Ted! Or I’m gonna tell Mom!”

            Ted responds with a back-handed slap on the cheek.

            “Mom!”

            “Oh my God. You’re such a tattle tale.”

            “Mom! Ted’s making fun of me and using the Lord’s name in vain!”

            “Mom can’t hear you, dummy. She’s cooking dinner.”

            “Ughh! I’m not a dum—”

            Stan is cut off by the realization that snowflakes are beginning to fall. He gazes up into the heavens and watches as pure white flecks flutter down, at first one at a time and then in torrents. As he turns back to his brother to continue telling him off, he discovers that Ted has skipped off with his tongue out. Stan lays his body out flat on the ground and lets the frozen crystals land on him. They are specks of fairy dust that will help him fly away.

            “Hey, you,” a boy’s voice says to Stan.

            Stan contorts his neck to look back at a tubby boy with a frizzy rat tail.

            “Hey,” says the boy. “Is this your ball?”

            Stan blinks. “Yeah, that’s my ball. But I don’t want it anymore. You can have it.”

            “Oh. Thanks,” says the boy, who then hugs the ball in his meaty arms. “My name’s Donny. What’s yours?”

            Stan finally sits up and crosses his legs Indian style. “My name’s Stan. Today’s my birthday.”

            “Oh, wow. How old are you?”

            “I just turned 9.”

            “Cool! I’m 9, too. Hey, I saw you try to fight that other kid. Is he your brother?”

            “Yeah, he’s my brother. He’s really mean. His name is Ted, and he thinks he’s really cool because he’s 11 and plays select.”

            “What’s that mean, ‘playing select?’”

            “Select soccer league,” says Stan. He stands up and begins walking around his front yard with Donny, who dribbles the ball with graceful taps. “My dad said it’s where you try out, and there are a whole bunch of kids there, and the best ones get picked to be on a really good soccer team.”

            “Psht. Soccer is for girls and momma’s boys. It’s all about baseball.”

            “Haha. I don’t really like soccer, either, but my dad wants me to play. I guess that’s why he gave me that ball for my birthday.”

            “What, this ball?” Donny asks. He picks the ball up and dropkicks it into the woods next to Stan’s house.

            “Hey!” Stan’s eyes open wide in surprise.

            “What? I thought you said you didn’t want it.”

            “I know. But I wanted to kick it out there.”

            “No problem,” Donny replies, and he jogs across the Pattersons’ yard and into the woods, his fat rolls jiggling all the way. Moments later, Stan hears the booming sound of Donny’s foot connecting with the soccer ball for another dropkick. This one lands right in Stan’s arms.

            “Nice kick!”

            “Yeah,” Donny says as he emerges from the trees and bushes. “My dad makes me play soccer, too.”

            “You could probably play select!”

            “Nah. I’d rather play baseball,” says Donny. “Hey, my dad told me to be home by five o’clock. He gets mad if I’m not home for dinner on time, so I have to leave. But I heard it’s supposed to snow enough that we’ll have a snow day tomorrow. Want to have a snowball fight then?”

            “Yeah!” says Stan.

            “OK. Call me when you want to go play.”

            “What’s your phone number?” asks Stan, digging into his pants for a pencil.

            “I don’t know. My mom and step-dad were really mean to me, and I just moved into my Dad’s house this week, so I don’t know the number yet. Look in the phonebook for Don Mueller. It’s kinda hard to spell. Just remember: M-U-E L-L-E-R.”

            “Your name is in the phonebook? I thought only grownups’ names are in there.”

            “No, that’s my dad’s name. I’m Donald Mueller, Junior. But,” he smiles, “if you call me ‘Donald,’ I’ll kick your butt.”

            Stan laughs for the first time all day. “OK, Donny. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

            “By the way,” Donny adds. “You’re really bad at fighting. I could probably beat you up with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back.”

            “Hey!” Stan’s smile fades for a moment. “What do you mean?”

            “You couldn’t even hit your brother once,” says Donny. His grin downturns, and he punches his closed right fist into his open left hand. “I’m gonna have to remember you when I forget my lunch. You’ll be easy to get lunch money from.”

            “What!” Stan’s face pales.

            Donny’s face softens again. “I’m just kidding with you, pal! Why would I do that to a nice guy like you? Hah. Stealing your lunch money! Did you really think I was a bully like that?”

            Stan sighs with relief and lets himself laugh again. “No, I guess not.”

            “You’ve gotta lighten up. That’s what my dad tells me when I get upset over something dumb someone else said or did.”

            “I guess so,” says Stan. “I guess you’re right. Well. See you tomorrow!”

            “See ya then,” Donny says, and streaks across Stan’s yard and down the snow-coated sidewalk, his rat tail bobbing back and forth and his belly bouncing.

            Stan stares up into the sky, his face once again a landing pad for snow. The fluffy flakes feel like boogers. He giggles at that thought. The melting flakes collect and become water droplets that stream down his face like tears, and Stan experiences an overwhelming rush of comfort, so much so that when his father stomps outside and curses at him to come in and eat, he is not fazed.

 

*          *          *

 

Mueller zips up and steps back. A red light blinks three times and water automatically rushes down the wall of the urinal. He looks over. A hunched-over old buzzard rubs hand soap into a lather, his arms soaked halfway up to his elbows. Mueller steps up to the left sink and runs water long enough for his hands to get wet. He returns to the table, where Stan has already started on his chicken fingers.

            “Mmm. Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom to find your food waiting for you?”

            “That sounds oddly familiar. Like from a movie or something.”

             “You know. . .” Mueller plops into the booth. “There’s something about a good-smelling public bathroom. It makes you want to come back again and again. Gives you a little confidence in the management and in the world in general. It’s good to know people still care enough to make bathrooms smell good.”

            “That bathroom smells good? A men’s room at a Steak ’n Shake? Are you sure you sure you just don’t have a thing for the smell of piss?”

            “Dude, trust me. I’m an objective critic when it comes to this kind of thing. That was one of the top five best-smelling bathrooms I’ve been in for the past year, public or private.”

            “Hah.” Stan wipes ketchup from his mouth. “Well why don’t you inform me, oh wise one? What’s a good bathroom smell like?”

“Cinnamon.”

A porcelain-white waitress with stringy blonde hair and blue varicose veins all over approaches the pair. “Sir, can I ask you to put out your cigar?”

“Sure, you can ask,” Mueller says.

Mueller turns his head back to his sandwich. He holds it with two hands. A lion tearing into gazelle hide, and he lets the sauces run down his chin and into his mane. A fat snake of a stogey smolders in a little glass ash tray to Mueller’s right. The waitress continues her blank stare.

“Sir. . . Can you please put out your cigar?”

“I’ll think about it . . . ” He smirks, sets his sandwich down. He shifts his whole torso rightward toward the waitress in the aisle. “If you answer me a question first.”

“OK. What’s that?”

“Why?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Mueller!” says Stan. “Will you just do—”

“I asked ‘Why?’ as in why should I put the cigar out?”

“Well. We just don’t let people smoke cigars in our restaurant. I guess it’s just our policy. It might bother some customers.”

“Huh? Is this a dream?”

“Sir?”

“I must be dreaming,” Mueller says, and picks up his cigar. He purses his lips and draws in smoke. The glowing orange tip points at the server’s face. A white ghost curls and wiggles out of his open mouth. “Because I’m sitting in the smoking section, smoking, and you’re telling me to stop.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“And as for bothering customers. . . It’s what? Like. . ,” He lifts the watch within an inch of his face with a flourish. He reads slowly: “Two fiff-teen ayy emm.” He glances up at the waitress, who now has her arms crossed.

Stan presses his lips together. He looks down and twiddles his thumbs.

“Give me a break. Seriously. It’s two-fifteen in the morning and you’re worried about me sending some folks home packing because I’m smoking in the smoking section.”

Stan kicks Mueller under the table.

“The only other person in here is that old guy across the room with the plaid trucker hat and the skin tags. And if you ask me, he looks like he could use a cigar himself.”

Stan stomps on Mueller’s foot and twists his heel as if he were putting out Mueller’s cigar.

 “I’m sorry, sir. But it’s against our policy. No cigars in Steak ’n Shake.”

“Mueller, I swear to God, just—”

“You know what, Miss? I’m gonna put this out. But I want you to ask me another question first.”

The waitress sighs.

“Go on. Ask me what the question is.”

“Mueller. What the hell are you thinking? Jesus Christ!”

“What’s the question?”

“Ask me: ‘Why are you putting your cigar out?’”

“OK. . . ‘Why are you putting your cigar out?’”

“Well, gee, lady. Fancy you asking me that! I guess. . .” He shrugs and takes another puff. “Oh, to hell with it!” He wraps his fingers around his cigar and stabs it into the ashtray, a dagger crumpling on a shield. “I’m just gonna put it all out there. I put my cigar out, but only because you asked me to, and you know what, lady? I think I like you, uh. . .” Mueller squints at her name tag. “Maureen.”

The waitress rubs her right eye and blushes.

“Here. I want you to have something. Hold out your little paw, there.”

Mueller whips it out, and Maureen eyes it suspiciously.

A permanent marker. Stan watches flabbergasted as Mueller pulls her half-extended arm toward him and starts scribbling on it with indelible ink. He writes about three digits on her pasty skin before she rips her arm back. Her face reddens and she readies her lips to scream at Mueller, but then she simmers down and stomps away fuming.

“Haha. You like that, Stan? Stan?”

Stan casts his eyes down at the table, Mueller shrugs, and a five-minute period of dead quiet transpires, the only sound being the latter’s raucous munching.

“Mueller,” Stan says to break the silence. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“Oh, Stanley. You know me. I’m just having a little bit of fun.” Mueller bares a devilish grin. “Why do you have to ruin my good time? It’s been an uneventful night, and I’m trying to make things interesting. Lighten up and enjoy the show.”

“Lighten up? Lighten up!” Stan pushes his plate away, grabs the edge of the table, and leans forward until he is mere inches from Mueller’s face. His unblinking eyes scorn Mueller. “You’ve always used that damn phrase, and I’m starting to finally realize that it never meant anything.” He slides toward the end of the booth. “You and your ‘lighten up’ and your ‘take it easy’ and your ‘go with the flow.’ You can go to hell and take those worthless sayings with you. I used to think it was funny, but really, you’re out of control, man. I don’t know if I can—”

“Which one of you motherfuckers wrote on my wife’s arm?”

A grizzly bear of a man, tattooed from head to toe with scaly bluish-green dragons, towers above Stan and Mueller. His hairless skull glistens with sweat, and dried chewing tobacco stains his scraggly beard.

“Whoever did that deserves to get flushed down a toilet like the piece of shit he is.” He grunts and looks from Stan to Mueller, from Mueller to Stan. “Well, who did it?”

“It’s the one with the real close-shaven hair, Ralph,” says Maureen with eyes full of fire, trotting toward them with a slip of paper in hand. “What do you say, guys? You want to pay now and leave or stick around for some more fun?”

“Fun? Oh, goody goody! I like having fun.” Mueller claps his hands together like a giddy schoolboy heading out for recess.

“Now’s not the time, Mueller. Actually, you know what? You go ahead and play your games. Game’s over for me. I’m getting out of here.”

“Not so fast, junior,” Ralph grunts. “I do believe you owe this beautiful lady some dough.”

“Thanks, honey.” Maureen pecks Ralph on the cheek.

“Sure, no problem. Anything you say.” Stan fumbles for his wallet, his hands trembling. Finally he removes a crisp ten-dollar bill and places it gently on the table. “You both have a real nice night.” Stan offers a nervous smile, then scrambles for the exit. As he flings the door open, he looks back at his friend. “Mueller?”

Mueller flicks his wrist at Stan, shooing him without breaking eye contact with Ralph.

“Go.”

“Mueller. Dude. Come on, man. Everything will be OK if you just pay her and leave. Let’s go!”

“No,” Mueller says, and pierces Stan with his ice cold eyes and furrowed eyebrows. The first-ever grim look Mueller has given Stan. “No.”

Mueller’s eyes shift back to Ralph. “You were saying? We were going to play a game. Something involving flushing crap, as I recall?”

“Fine,” Stan says. He departs without looking back. Until he jammed his key into the ignition of his car and glanced back into the room. Through his windshield and the restaurant window he could see Mueller still smarting off to Ralph.

And then Stan sees something that makes him almost swallow his tongue. He sees something and wants to see no more, and in a panic he turns the key and his car squeals in reverse, almost ramming into a parked truck. What he sees makes him jet out of the parking lot and into the cold, hard night. What he sees makes him vomit in his bed. Miles away from Steak ’n Shake and yet still there, in that horrid moment.

He sees Ralph shout at Mueller; sees Maureen’s dead eyes coming to life; sees Mueller hock a loogey in Ralph’s face; sees Ralph turn away for a moment, pull out a handkerchief, wipe his slimy cheek, turn back, and—

—and he sees the hairy-backed, hairy-knuckled, hairy-necked beast close his fingers and pelt Mueller in the gut, then in the jaw, then in the nose; he sees Ralph whip out a switchblade with a single glowing diamond like a fragment of crushed ice on its handle; sees him flick it open—

And then Stan drives away.

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