by Hunter Gatewood
They posted up under a palm tree on the edge of the parking lot. Skippy took off his bursting backpack and gave it a little dropkick. He placed the scratched-up Casio keyboard on the ground with great care. The abalone shell went on the keyboard’s speaker. He reached into the sleeve of his black t-shirt to attack his armpit with furious staccato scrapes, like a dog with its back foot behind its ear. Satisfied, he pulled a small pouch from his jeans and flopped down. He troughed a rolling paper and crumbled the first tiny bud into it.
Jamie sat down close to Skippy, twisting his butt until his back blocked the wind off the beach. He was eager to smoke but he didn’t watch the joint-rolling. He didn’t want to think about armpit fingers.
Knee to knee, their jeans almost matched. Faded America blue with a greasy mud varnish across the thighs. Dirtbag armor, anodized from taquitos and fries and beer and Monster and park dirt and bike chain grease and wet dumpster rust.
The parking lot was full of people with kids, trudging back and forth to the beach. Slam the car door. Beep-lock. Walk away with colorful towels and folding chairs and coolers. Return, dragging all that shit back. Beep-unlock. Open the door. Everyone was totally cool with everything the frank sun showed of them.
Jamie met Skippy yesterday at the free lunch. Today the free lunch was somewhere else. Move the tragedy parade around. Don’t let it relax. Don’t let it be.
Skippy stopped working on the joint in his lap. He threw his head back to stare straight up in the sky. The sunshine made his sunburn look lighter, less painful. “It happened so fast, man. Like lightning fast. Before I knew, man. Honest to god. Before I knew I had chopped him with that tomahawk that one time, I had chopped him twenty-seven times.”
It was a confession and a question. The guy who did it wanted to know why he did it.
Jamie had his own questions. Who got chopped? Who counted to twenty-seven? Was a tomahawk the same as a hatchet or like just a rock with a handle?
Skippy was quietly working on the joint again, so Jamie finally said, “Well, did he die or what? Did you kill him?”
Skippy licked the rolling paper and twisted it closed. “You know what? No. He did not. I guess my heart wasn’t in a lot of those chops.”
Jamie leaned in to block the wind. Skippy lit it with one paper match, took a long slow hit and passed it. It was a very small joint. Jamie had to touch his fingertips to the armpit fingertips to grab it, and he still burned his fingers. He inhaled and burned his fingers some more. The joint went out.
They waited, each in his own head, for the furry feeling. Here it was.
Jamie wanted to stay quiet longer. Each word spoken was further commitment to this guy. A commitment to giving a shit, to sticking together, to saying something about his own self. An unbalanced chat could lead to hurt feelings or paranoia and a sudden new enemy. With a tomahawk. But he was so curious about this crazy tomahawk business. He wanted to interview him. Interrogate him. I’m Judge Judy, motherfucker. He giggled.
Skippy looked at him, so Jamie asked a Judy question: “When did this happen, young man?”
“Last week. You think it’s funny?”
“Last week? You aren’t in jail.”
“Dude. That’s hella lucky.” Skippy must have something on the guy he tomahawked, for him not to press even simple assault. He must have avoided the guy’s head. And it must be a rock on a stick, not an ax blade. Jamie shifted, getting ready to move his stoned bones. He was already tired of being Judge Judy. He sighed and said, “Man, we need to go if we want lunch.”
Skippy didn’t budge. He looked at Jamie until Jamie had to look him in the eye. He said, “You okay road dogs with an ax murderer?”
“He didn’t die,” Jamie said. Skippy raised his eyebrows and screwed up his mouth small in a I’m so clever expression that reminded Jamie of a girl. Clever like he had more shit to claim, actual murders. Could be stunting, could be real.
Jamie pulled himself to standing, his balance unsteady from even that little bit of pot. He lived for this feeling of simple sloppy mind freedom. It flowed to every part of his body. He stared into the rainbow shine of the abalone shell, against the keyboard’s scratched silver-and-black plastic. If Skippy could play that thing, that would be cool. Jamie tried to think of good keyboard songs and failed to think of any. Maybe Steve Winwood?
Jamie said, “I killed a guy once. It wasn’t fun.”
“Oh, shit, man,” said Skippy, suddenly a naive boy and not a tough smirking man. Jamie watched him try to get it back, but the reaction was too pure.
Jamie said, “Are you okay being road dogs with a murderer?” Asking questions could put you in charge. Like Judge Judy for real.
Skippy stared up at him from the ground. His eyes were small and sad. He was fidgeting with the strings of the pot pouch. “It was my dad,” Skippy said.
“The guy I chopped.”
“Oh.” Jamie wondered if he was supposed to be some kind of ass-out therapist for this kid now.
“I chopped my dad.”
“It was my birthday.”
Jamie looked away.
Skippy said, “I tried to go back.”
“Well, dude, birthday cake is delicious.”
“Nothing. Dumb joke. About going home on your birthday. My bad.”
“Who did you kill?”
“Some asshole who tried to kill me. Not my dad.” Skippy took that like a punch in the gut, so Jamie said, “He’s an asshole too, though, for sure. Tried to kill me a couple times.”
Skippy stuck the pot pouch in his pants and stood up. “Dads,” he said, like it was a secret password. His face was close to Jamie’s. He wanted Jamie to let him in.
“Assholes,” Jamie said. He needed to move now if he was going to get away, before Skippy started to gather all his stuff.
Skippy said, “Everybody’s got one,” then laughed. It was a shrill gasping laugh. “Hey! Both! Everybody’s got both.”
“An asshole and a dad?” Jamie laughed. He was a little stoned. This dude was funny. “Let’s go, man. Grab your shit.”
Hunter Gatewood is a California writer who grew up in the South. He writes short stories, novels, and essays. He tells true stories at a storytelling show in his new town of San Diego. The idea for this story came from a trip to his neighborhood dog beach, where he spends time with his busy busy dog. For his recent birthday he finally got a turntable, which he calls a record player to offend his friends.