Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
So this is in the crackhouse. I’m sitting on the couch, with the coffee table between me and the guys. My exboyfriend, the really crazy one, is getting repeatedly punched in the face by D., who was our roommate until a few days before. He stole something from the ex, but then he spent a few days so fucked up that he’s now convinced that the ex stole from him instead, and has returned to have it out. D. swings hard at the ex, who has a martial arts background. The ex isn’t blocking anything, just standing up and smiling and getting hit and falling back down. This happens five or six times, the ex silent, D. hollering about teaching him a lesson and who not to fuck with, motherfucker. The last couple of times the ex stands up, D. looks confused and a little rattled. I’ve seen a person get punched in the face before (a gay boy I kissed, right before the first time I kissed him, was punched in the face by his stepfather), but they’ve never acted the way the ex is. The ex’s face looks reddish and taut in the places that are going to swell and bruise, and his upper lip is puffy and bloodied. He stands back up, smiling, silent.
D. stares at him, and says something about messing with the lion and hearing the roar, a yelled bit of puffery. The ex says something back like, “your lion, my lamb,” all calm like it’s a disagreement over pronunciation. There is a long moment where they stand there staring at each other. I’m 18, and I’m trying not to breathe. Both men have scared me recently, D. forcing a long kiss on me one night when the ex was out on a smoke run, the ex a whole long list of terrible things. I feel like an obvious target across the low table, like I couldn’t handle either the force of D’s fist (it’s a particular sound, hard and soft at once, unfathomable bones and blood) or the thud of my own fall against the carpet. I wouldn’t stand up again.
D. shrugs his shoulders and arms up once, fast, feigning another swing, but the ex doesn’t flinch, just keeps smiling at him, open-eyed. D. turns to the right and leaves, slamming the apartment door behind him. Downstairs, he slams the door to the building hard enough to rattle our windows one story up. I worry that if I move, if I breathe or untuck my leg from under me, move the book (I’m reading Vonnegut) from my knee, the violence will stream my direction. The ex holds still for another few seconds, and then walks toward the bedroom, not looking at me. He comes back out with D.’s cherished blanket and an armful of D.’s clothes. He spreads the clothes out on the blanket, and I think maybe he’s going to sell (though not for much) all D.’s things, or hand them out to the homeless to piss D. off. Instead, he unzips his black jeans, spreads his legs a bit, and pisses all over the clothes and edges of the blanket. It is the first time I’ve watched a man piss from start to finish.
When he’s done, he picks the blanket up by the corners so the clothes roll to the inside, goes to our front window, slides it all the way open, and tosses the bundle out onto the sidewalk. Only then does he look at me, his right eye starting to go fat. I want to cry because I’m scared and he’s noticed me and I have realized that he could kill me and though I’m still depressed and want to die, I don’t want to die right then. I want to cry because it feels like the only choice is between this—the terror and the unbelievable awfulness just across the table from me—and the nothingness stacked plainly on top of unceasing nothingness of the suburb I escaped from.
That night I sleep on the small couch, and someone (probably D.) throws something through the window above me. I wake up with the light still on and I am red everywhere, glass and red. The ex runs out from the bedroom and there is a moment where he is concerned, worried for me, like someone who isn’t psychotic. Then he laughs and I look down again at the bright lumpy red everywhere and smell the basil and realize it’s tomato sauce, a jar of tomato sauce all over me and my only clothes (the others were stolen) and the couch and the coffee table. I laugh with him, carefully under all the glass, and we pick up the shards together. After that night, things start to go bad.