These Are My Dress Clothes
by Travis Dahlke
With my tongue, I spear the territory where braces once roamed to wedge kernels of pilaf out. Carry them to my throat. There’s Natallie’s hair, drowned in oil and wrapping around the rice mound’s base. Black, with a bulb of flesh at its end. For a few minutes, I try to eat around it, using my teeth on the fork, but give up. Natallie Burnquist does not notice this. She’s wearing overalls and her chin is coated in red bumps, which means she was making out with the senior she hangs out with sometimes.
“I’m glad Rivers isn’t here, I’ll say it.”
Someone, I’m not sure who, has the TV on in another room. Her stepmom is at work. We’re eating her dinner leftovers. Natallie’s house has the residue of bitter kielbasa and lint in the air that it always has, but the kitchen window is left open so it’s sort of like we’re sitting outside now.
“You hate Rivers,” Natallie says.
“I hate him.”
Rivers isn’t too bad. Kind of our pinch hitter friend, but he is annoying all the same with his wispy goatee and chickenpox scars that prove he has no willpower. We are anti-Rivers. At least for right now. I can hear a stifled metallic moaning that does not belong in this room. It has been going forever but I’ve only noticed it just now.
“Look at this,” she says, withdrawing a phone from her pocket. “Found it outside the Pike’s Peak Grille, right next to a storm drain. Right about to fall in through the grate. It’s totally prepaid and everything.”
It is a scuffed-up clamshell, a little outdated and appears to have never lived inside of a protective case. She slides out a keyboard, as if it’s been hers forever, and whips it across the table. Next to my mountain of lemon-herbed chicken and rice pilaf now is a glowing square of someone’s rubbery looking labia minora.
“How is there no password? Who doesn’t use a password?”
“Will you look at that Pajingo,” she says.
“Oh my.” Oh my?
She snaps it shut then reopens it. “I’ve been getting texts, too.” Her rings are clacking against the rubber buttons.
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s mostly just whatever kind of stuff. I have the worst heartburn right now,” she says, putting our plates in the sink and running water over them for a second. “Read through,” she says, but I am afraid. Natallie is older than me from being held back a grade. Twice, and at different schools.
“That beach stanks, but you get what you pay for.”
Another one says, “gonna chill here – drinks soon tho.” There’s a lot of individual question marks. Some of them followed by an exclamation point. Scrolling through I read something else about a pickup. There’s an address, which I do not recognize. I’ll suck the acid out of your esophagus like it’s a copperhead bite, I almost say. If it means we don’t have to go, I’ll do it.
“Everything’s all set. 137 South Gilead Street. Thx.” From a craigslist.org address.
My feet are stuck now, I can feel them set firmly in Natallie’s plan. She takes the phone back.
She is whispering; we are whispering now.
“It could be anything. It could be car parts.”
“Exactly, but it’s probably drugs. We’re gonna go get them. They’re already paid for. We just have to pick ’em up,” she says, now rereading it so close it illuminates her neck like the petals of a buttercup.
I tell her that I don’t know about that right now and she is squinting lines up on to her forehead.
“Come on, come on, come on.”
In the bowl in front of me I drool out a little bit of her stomach acid, but it is still not enough.
“We go to the address and just get whatever it is, no big deal. Free stuff.”
“Where is that even? Is it that far? What would we do? We don’t use drugs. I mean if you want to go buy a muffler that’s fine. I’ll take you to buy a muffler.” The most boring car part I can think of.
“It’s not far at all. Right near that burger-church thing, and we would sell them!”
“I’ll lend you money if you need money.”
“It’s not about the money. We’ll be like those guys in Hawaiian shirts with all the grease to hold back their hair. I have this whole strategy. We’re gonna market ’em to the kids from State.”
“What hair? Who is greasy?”
But she goes outside and gets in the front seat of my Volvo that I got for graduation. It is possible that I was lured here for this, and I half expect she is going to make me pick a bunch of people up. Another car pulls up, ferrying John Cougar Mellencamp on the backs of menthols. Her stepmom gets out and asks where we’re headed.
“Going to the movies,” Natallie lies over my lap. Her stepmom has bangs in the shape of a seashell clipped right above her eyes.
“You kids have fun,” she says, and it is comforting and I wish I could go inside with her. Natallie tells me to go and we are negotiating stop signs and moving through our neighborhood like the slow crawl of a draught. The phone is centered in her lap.
“What if it is an animal, like an exotic one? Your dad is not going be happy about you bringing back a marmoset or a panther kitten or something.”
Natallie is glaring at me. I can see it at the edge of my vision and I hate when people look at me when I’m driving, as if we’re inside of a movie and I can constantly turn to face them. She’s shooting down everything I say. Confident in her role of becoming a drug seller. I can see Natallie seeing herself gliding over tile in sunglasses and a shirt made out of blue jeans. Sopping up beads of Jacuzzi water with cash.
“When are you getting your license?” I ask, but I know it is a mean question. I immediately regret it. She goes quiet and punches the big volume button of my stereo. Drums as wide as cathedrals march at us, dispersing and crashing into ponds of fuzz.
“What is this?”
“I like this,” she says, and she stares out the window to it. Rivers’ road. “We could pick him up.”
Here it comes, I knew it. I knew she’d make me pick up a bunch of people. She is humming to the song, making up the words. She doesn’t mention Rivers again, so I keep going until we get to the burger-church, where we take a couple rights, a third wrong right, and eventually see the street sign: No Outlet.
Why’d it have to be a No Outlet? We park in the driveway, leaving behind what had been familiar. Muddling gravel and stones under my snow tires, left on from like three winters ago. I think I can see a figure watching TV through the curtains.
“I can’t figure out how to put this on silent,” Natallie says, more nervous than I expected.
I think she could suddenly encase her mane in a ski mask. Produce a weapon of some kind. But she shoves her hands in her pockets, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her do anything insecure. She puts my sweatshirt on over her overalls and zips it up to the very top.
“Have you been here before?”
“Let’s just go. Come on, this is far enough,” I say, kind of laughing to show how not-nervous I am.
We’re standing in front of the doorbell, a dirty glowing moon.
“You push it.”
The house is protected by a mote of roman candles and the remains of grocery store fireworks, all soaked from rain. We bounce up and down as if it’s cold but it’s not that cold. I could be a shutter, about to fall off its hinge and be consumed by feral shrubbery. Start a new life as a rotting piece of wood. Natallie raises her fist to knock, but the door opens. He looks like someone who once sold bathrobes in a plaza. Long, red, veiny hair combed over a blonde face. The guy invites us inside and is not acting anxious at all, which makes me want to jump his front stoop and make a getaway in the car.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says, looking at the back of Natallie’s head like he knows her. “Thanks for coming out here this late. Were you able to find it in the dark?”
“Yeah, it was fine,” Natallie says.
I dislike the way he said ‘dark.’ In the dark. I make sure I am not speaking out-loud, cramming my lips together. He’s 38, maybe 45 years old. I want to whisper something to Natallie so much, but you can’t be whispering things to someone in someone else’s house who you’ve just met. She seems either poised to run too, or cramped from the acid reflux.
“You guys in school?”
We don’t answer.
“I actually graduated from AHS. God. 2001 I think. You guys probably weren’t even born yet,” he says, leading us down a corridor where family portraits hang on the walls. Kids from decades ago with square teeth, mullets and the eyes of carp. A watercolor of Cape Cod or Martha’s Island or whatever. All guarding the hallway runner. He’s searching in a closet and talking to himself. I’m sure the portraits will kill us if we make any sudden moves, their Band-Aid-breath hot on our necks.
“You have a very nice home,” Natallie says.
“Here they are. Right next to the batteries, where everything always is.” He holds a big blue Marshalls bag, which looks strained by its own weight. “Give these blisters a pop and you’ll get a good ooze of calcite and maybe even opal,” he says.
This psychopath fucker. We both stand there, refusing entry. I cannot detect the comfort of outside air any more.
“Let’s go back in the living room,” he says with my back to him, and then plops the bag down at our feet. Natallie is glaring at it, hungry. So close. The dusk of wood paneling envelopes her. I bet they installed this to cover up the mildew in the walls. It stings to inhale.
“This is a good deal you’re giving us, and I want you to know that we appreciate it.” Natallie is using a tone of professionalism that I’ve never heard before and her hands have left her pockets.
“I just think it’s great you kids are taking in interest in this. They’re all pure Bristol diamonds too. From Ruidoso, when I went with my wife last spring.”
Brillo diamonds? What is he talking about. This sounds like serious stuff. “Biker meth,” I blurt out for some reason.
“What?” they both ask.
I nod at the bathrobe. Natallie is reading something on the phone now. Someone’s watching TV in another room. Upstairs, maybe. The Bachelorette. I think he is taking our silence for the transactions end. A crease in the paneling.
“Well you kids are all paid up, so enjoy ’em.” He smiles with his mustache, like a frightened animal in a bush.
Both of us say thank you and he’s making small talk about camping or campers or something but we don’t stop moving until we get outside, through the screen door which filters nothing. Crickets. Burnouts. I pull out backwards from the driveway, firing off slugs of gravel. Not caring how much noise I make, not acknowledging this bag from some Marshall’s somewhere.
“Jesus Christ that was really dumb. That was fuckin’ so dumb, Nat. I didn’t like that.”
There’s no way I’m looking because I’m very busy driving angrily. I am forming the words to hurt her stupid adolescent brain with. Make her aware of how it destroys every-fuckin-thing it touches. How it maybe, this time, would’ve gotten us killed. I’m going to finally ask what’s wrong with you. I’ll do it. The worst possible thing I could say, the thing that’s been coiled and getting hotter. It could do irrevocable damage. I have to slow down; I can see us getting pulled over. Probably arrested for intent to sell. I can hear her rummaging through the bag.
“They’re geodes.” She pulls one out and displays what seems to be a frozen meatball. Natallie is laughing through the choke of distortion pedals. With the window down, she throws it out of my car and over a guardrail. She hands me one, still cold with central air.
“It’s so light.” I throw it backwards, cutting a trail of musk.
Natallie drops the phone into the flood of our man-made wind, saying everything is for someone else to find. Our hands are imprinted with the rind of meteors. We drive around in the dark until the Marshall’s bag is empty and can be crumpled up and stuffed in a pocket. A sourness begins to creep up my throat. Natallie’s acid. I have stolen it, relieved her of it for now. We hurl our cut at front yards like the seeds of some new crop.
“You’re right. They are light.”