I've been flirting with the idea of short stories lately. So here's one...
The bus drove by the stadium swiftly. Brent looked out of the window, fighting the urge to press his lips against the glass. He had done so many times in his Grandpa’s truck, for which he received a thrashing each time. He picked up the book he had been reading and opened to the middle, staring vaguely at the pages. He looked out of the window a second time, and let his nose touch the warm glass lightly at first, then he pressed his lips against the glass. His face was against the glass when he saw the girl from his class. He retreated, hoping she hadn’t recognized him. He let his head fall back quickly and snapped his book shut.
As the bus rolled on, he looked at his reflection in the glass. His brown hair stuck limply to his forehead. His hair was wiry and dry, and now his perspiration made it limp and stringy. In the seventh grade, he shaved his hair, but then his teeth stood out. Then in the eight grade, Alfonso told him that if he tried to kiss a girl, her tongue would get caught between his teeth. Either that, or his teeth would rip her tongue. Hamidou once told him that he didn’t have good white boy hair. Good hair was Patrick Dempsey’s, Hamidou explained.
Brent didn’t know he had bad teeth, until the summer he got sent to Albany. It was the summer he turned six. The kids told him he looked like an aardvark. Some said a hare. Others said a gorilla. His upper jaw stuck out. It seemed as though an invisible force was pulling his upper jaw forward, causing his teeth to spread out like the prongs of a rake. His lower jaw was constantly playing catch up and failing miserably.
When the bus pulled to the front of his dorm, he picked his book bag and prepared to get off. He walked across the lawn quickly, kicking a stray pinecone in his path. He went into his room and threw his book bag on the bed. He took off his hoodie and grabbed the first shirt his eyes fell on. He held the shirt to his nose for a little while. No matter how many times he ran it through the washer, it still had his smell. He opened the refrigerator and reached for a ham and cheese snack. He took off the packaging, wrapped the pastry in a paper napkin and put it in the microwave. He almost felt like he could predict what the pastries contained by pressing them. He had eaten enough frozen pastry snacks to feed his entire dorm at least three time over.
He pulled out his chair and sat in it upright. He reached for his notebook and began reading his notes, circling every other word. He read the first page and then flipped over to the next page. He read quickly and was on the last page of notes when he heard the key turn in the lock. Etienne walked in. His voice loud as he talked on the phone in heavily accented English. Etienne gave Brent a heavy pat on the back as he walked by him. He put his books on his desk, picked up the remote control and turned on the television as walked over to the refrigerator. He returned with a soda can and a paper plate wrapped in foil. As he struggled with the foil wrapper, grains of rice fell freely to the floor. He dropped the plate on his chair, picked up the soda can and tried to open it. The top of the can broke off and the phone fell from where it had been lodged between his ear and shoulder.
“Damn, soda. Damn American soda, why can’t they sell it in a bottle?” He hissed loudly.
He picked up the phone and spoke into it. The other end was silent. He flung the phone on the bed carelessly, walking toward the sink, soda can in hand. He reached for a spoon and used the end to punch a hole through the top of the can, spilling the soda on the floor.
“Man, I’m just tired. I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning. No lunch too. I’m just really hungry man, really, really, hungry,” he said.
He took a long swig from the can before setting it on the desk. He reached for the foil-covered plate, this time peeling the layers of foil gently. He took off the last roll of foil, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into the trashcan. He warmed the food in the microwave and began stuffing his mouth with the spicy jollof rice and oxtail. Afterwards, he picked up the remote control and began flipping through the channels, settling on the local news.
“What’s that you’re watching?” Brent asked finally.
“Nothing man, just the news. Let’s see whose house got burned in Athens today or who stole their grandma’s cigarettes,” Etienne joked.
Brent laughed nervously and turned around to pick up his notebook. He pretended to study for a few minutes.
“So, when are you leaving for Cameroon?” Brent asked.
“Oh, three days before Christmas,” Etienne replied, with a stuffed mouth. “I want to spend sometime with my aunty in Douglasville. My cousins are coming into town and I want to see them before I leave for home” he continued.
“Aren’t you supposed to be coming home with me this holiday?”
“Trust me my mother won’t be serving grilled monkey this Christmas, we eat chicken during the holidays.”
“I don’t mind trying monkey, really. I heard it’s flavorful…I saw it on PBS.”
“Oh, I was just pulling your legs, I’ve never tasted monkey meat…”
“I’m sorry Etienne.”
“That’s alright, so when are you moving your stuff out of this place?”
“I’ll move the last day of class, I think I’ll just go back home and hang for a while until I hear back from Wal-Mart.”
“Wow, man with your degree, Wal-Mart?”
“Yeah, I’ll take whatever and then find something else. The economy is still shitty, I’ll be lucky if Wal-Mart even calls me back.”
“What was that?”
“Oh nothing, I just said ‘God of Abraham.’ My grandmother used to say that a lot.”
“Alright, I think I’ll take a short nap. If you’re awake, wake me up at 8:00pm.”
Brent settled back into his chair and turned on his laptop. The screen lit up slowly. He spent half his life watching Japanese anime. When he wasn’t in class, he was either studying in his room or watching anime. He got up and took out another frozen snack from the freezer. It was a broccoli and cheese pastry. He wrapped the pastry in a paper towel and set the microwave timer for six minutes. He liked when the broccoli was limp and dark. It was easier to chew. When the timer went off, he got the snack out of the oven and bit the edge of the crust. He heard a sound and looked over his shoulder. Etienne had rolled over and now lay in the bed with his feet planted, while his knees pointed up to the ceiling. Brent reminded himself to wake Etienne up at 7:45pm. It usually took at least twenty minutes to rouse him from sleep. Early in the semester, Etienne overslept and missed a biology lab examination. That was the day they had their first argument. After that argument, Brent always made sure to start the process of waking Etienne minutes ahead of time.
Etienne was the first roommate Brent got along with. Brent had spent the last three years in the same dorm, in the same room. The roommates came and went, each worse than the last. In his junior year, his roommate was Obadiah Durbin, a sophomore from Ludowici. Obadiah made sense of the world only as it applied to football. He had come to Georgia just for football. Everything else was secondary. He described colors using the names of school. Apples weren’t just red, they were Georgia red. Salmon was Gator orange. His life revolved around football and sex. Obadiah wasn’t particularly attractive or bright but very out going. He was the poster child for small town celebrity gone wild.
Brent’s freshman roommate was Tanner Pierce from South Carolina. Tanner got to the room first and picked the bed by the window. He was the first person Brent had ever seen apply shaving cream with a brush. Tanner had rows of brightly colored shirts, each shirt had a logo of a lamb hanging from a ribbon. Brent couldn’t remember where he had seen that logo, but it looked familiar. Tanner was patronizing. He considered Brent stupid and perhaps inbred. He rarely spoke to Brent, and when he did he stared at Brent’s teeth, as though he was talking to them.
In Brent’s sophomore year, it was some kid from Pakistan, Sulman. Brent and Sulman never spoke. Sulman had a habit of leaving his shoes by the door. By the end of the first week, he had four shoes by the door. Brent arranged the shoes back in Sulman’s closet. When Sulman returned, he put the shoes by the door. Thus began the silent ritual. Sulman left the shoes by the door and Brent put them back in the closet. They were the perfect odd couple. They just came and went like zombies unaware of the other.
Brent met Etienne during the African Students Association sponsored event; Africa Week. Etienne was standing outside the Student Center passing out flyers for an event. Etienne stopped Brent as he walked by and convinced him to come to a panel discussion the next day. At the event, there were only two white kids in the audience besides Brent. The girl had a piece of African fabric wrapped around her waist over her jeans. She perfectly channeled the typical returning Peace Corps volunteer and seemed to be the “Africa” expert. When she spoke about white people, she didn’t say “we,” instead she said “they.” Brent was astonished, she had said she was from Virginia. The other white kid was a boy from South Africa.
The following day, Brent ran into Etienne at the library and mumbled some words about how informative the discussion had been.
“Do you have a Facebook account?” Etienne asked, falling in step with Brent.
“No, I don’t,” Brent replied.
“No Facebook? How do you keep in touch?”
It was hard understanding Etienne because of his thick French accent. Brent listened and nodded even when he didn’t understand what Etienne was saying. Etienne talked and laughed a lot. He didn’t care that he had an accent. He made American friends because he wanted his English to improve. Brent still had not found a roommate for the fall and Etienne wanted an American roommate.
Etienne went back to Douala for the summer. Brent sent him messages on Facebook. At the end of the summer, Brent had only forty-three Facebook friends compared to the almost nine hundred Etienne had. Brent still didn’t have a profile picture and his Facebook friends were mostly his cousins and random kids from high school. Etienne was Brent’s only Facebook friend from college.
At 7:45pm, Brent walked over to Etienne’s bed and shook him lightly.
“Wake up,” Brent said, standing over Etienne.
Etienne turned over lazily.
“Is it eight yet?” He asked.
“Will be when you get out of bed,” Brent replied.
Etienne understood Brent’s routine.
“Okay, let me sleep for five more minutes, please,” he begged.
“If you go back to sleep, you’ll be sleeping until tomorrow,” Brent replied.
“Please, just five minutes.”
Brent turned away and headed for his chair. As he sat down, a knock came at the door.
He walked up to the door and looked through the peephole. Etienne’s friends were at the door. He opened the door and Hamidou and Emmanuel walked in, talking loudly.
Emmanuel was Nigerian and had perfected his American accent. Hamidou was a freshman from Senegal.
“Etienne, wake up, sleeping like a pregnant woman,” Hamidou said walking over to where Etienne lay.
Etienne gave Hamidou the finger and turned to face the wall. Emmanuel pulled up Etienne’s chair and sat in it.
Hamidou grabbed Etienne’s comforter and yanked it off his body.
“Etienne, stop this bullshit and wake up man, you’ve got all night to sleep,” Hamidou said loudly.
Etienne finally sat up in bed his comforter pulled up to his knees.
“What’s going on?” Emmanuel asked reverting to his Nigerian accent.
“Nothing much man, just trying to get some sleep. I didn’t sleep last night, studying for that stupid Organic Chemistry test,” Etienne replied.
“Oh, thank God I don’t have to deal with that,” Emmanuel laughed. “All you Africans want to be doctors.”
“Man, I can’t come to America to learn business. I gotta do something profitable. There are hundreds of successful business men in Douala who never saw a classroom, but there are no Douala doctors who never went to med school,” Etienne replied, looking serious.
Hamidou and Brent laughed at the same time.
“Do Cameroonian witch doctors go to school?” Emmanuel asked.
“Man, they go to the one that’s greater than school, Douala witch doctors don’t play,” Etienne responded.
“Is witchcraft real… I mean is it real?” Brent asked, with restrained excitement.
Hamidou looked at Etienne and they both burst out laughing at the same time.
Etienne started to say something but couldn’t for the laughter that now shook his body.
“Witchcraft is real. It happens everywhere,” Hamidou finally said.
“But have you seen it happen?” Brent asked.
“I mean I guess American witchcraft is different, but in Africa, witchcraft is no joke. Witch doctors do all sorts of things. They make amulets, provide fertility potions, they can turn…I mean they do everything. They can cure illness, make money…” Hamidou continued.
“Really?” Brent asked a look of comical surprise on his face.
“Seeing is believing. When you see a witch you’ll believe,” Emmanuel added.
“But how can you believe in witchcraft? That’s just dumb,” Brent argued.
“Americans believe in Santa Claus and fairies. Fairies are emissaries of witches, does that make them dumb? How about Harry Potter? Isn’t he a wizard?” Emmanuel asked.
“Well, that ‘s all make believe. It’s entertainment,” Brent continued.
“Oh really,” Emmanuel said, his voice rising. “So, American witches are now special or what?” He asked a look of sarcasm on his face.
“Damn you and those teeth,” Emmanuel continued.
“Damn you too,” Brent yelled.
“Alright, it’s too late for all this, break this up, at least neither of you has seen a witch for real,” Etienne said. “Brent, common it’s alright,” he added.
“Your white boy is getting red,” Hamidou laughed.
“What did you just say?” Brent asked furiously.
“He didn’t say anything,” Etienne replied quickly, coming to Hamidou’s defense.
“So, when are you buying your ticket?” Etienne asked Hamidou.
“Ticket for what?” Hamidou replied.
“Dummy, world cup,” Etienne replied. “We have to buy them at the same time so we can get on the same flight,” he continued.
“Either that, or whoever gets to Johannesburg first will have to wait at the airport for the rest,” Hamidou added.
“I am not doing that waiting deal,” Emmanuel replied.
Hamidou looked at Etienne and motioned towards Brent. He didn’t want to speak French so Brent wouldn’t get suspicious.
“Hey Brent, do you want to come with us to South Africa?” Etienne asked.
Brent was hesitant for a while. He was still sulking and was upset with Etienne for not defending him against Emmanuel.
“I’ll think about it,” he mumbled, his face glued to his laptop screen.
“You should come with us, it’ll be fun. We can go on a Safari afterwards, go to Robben Island…” Emmanuel added.
Brent pretended not to hear and continued watching his movie.
Etienne looked in Emmanuel’s direction and made eye contact, pointing his head in Brent’s direction. Emmanuel got up and walked over to Brent and held out his hand. Brent looked aside at first until Hamidou prodded him. Finally, he got up and took Emmanuel’s hand in his. Emmanuel grasp was firm. He pulled Brent in, patting him on the back.
“How much is the ticket to Johannesburg?” Brent asked as Emmanuel walked away.
“Right now, it’s about $2,100,” Hamidou responded.
“I don’t know if I can make it. I don’t have that kind of money. I don’t even have a passport.” Brent replied.
“It’s that pricey with a major airline, it should be cheaper if you search other outlets, say $1,600. You can come up with that right?” Hamidou asked.
“Not really,” Brent replied.
Etienne got off his bed and walked over to his desk. He got his Biology textbook and headed back for his bed. He sat down and opened the book, signaling that the night was over. Emmanuel got up and headed for the door, Hamidou trailing him.
When Hamidou and Emmanuel left Etienne shut his textbook.
“How about the money for your implants?” He asked Brent.
“I can’t spend that money, I need to get my implants next year. I’m starting a new job and I might meet someone. I also need to move to Atlanta. I can’t go back to Dawson.” Brent said.
“But you don’t know if you even have the job yet. Come with us to South Africa. It’s going to be amazing. Just us guys. You can route your flight through Cameroon so you can meet my family. The trip won’t cost that much. We can travel with Pavle, the white South African. Remember him? You already interviewed without implants, it won’t make much of a difference if you begin the job without them,” Etienne said.
“I really want to transform myself next year. I’m graduating in two months, the first in my family to do so. Getting out of Dawson, implants, a girl on the side…”
“Skip the implants and take the trip of a lifetime. You’ve never even been to New York!”
“I really need to fix my teeth.”
At 11:00pm Brent turned off his laptop and crawled into bed. Etienne got out his Organic Chemistry notes and began flipping through. He wanted to cover four chapters before going to bed. He stretched and looked over to where Brent lay asleep. He felt sorry for him. In four years in college, Brent had almost no friends and had never had a girlfriend. The last time he took Brent downtown Athens with some friends, Brent sat down at the end of the bar, looking into his drink, avoiding conversation. Living with Brent this past semester had helped him improve his accent and English. Brent talked and laughed around him but was moody and withdrawn around other people. Etienne looked away and shook his head. He felt like he had tried to get Brent to come out of his shell. In December Brent would be on his own navigating life solo. Brent had done more in Athens these last few months than he had done since his freshman year.
Brent got back from class exhausted. He had been thinking hard all day. He wanted to go to South Africa with Etienne and the other guys but he wanted to fix his teeth. He had saved the money, working hard at the library, but he had never left the country. He didn’t care for soccer that much but he wanted to go to Africa with Etienne. He would not only be the first to go to college, but the first to travel overseas. He figured he could save up more money to fix his teeth before he traveled in the summer. If he did.
He turned on his laptop as he nursed a pepperoni snack in his hand. He reclined his chair while the computer booted, chewing noisily on his snack. He sat back up in a few minutes wiping both palms down the front of his pants. Etienne and the others bought their tickets the previous week. They pleaded with him to come but he was adamant. Now, Brent took a deep breath and began searching for flights. He only had $2,000 in savings and the flights he found were unaffordable, so he finally decided to do a random search. The words almost jumped in his face. CHEAP TICKETS TO AFRICA. He clicked on the link nervously, trying to contain his excitement. . There were price listings to almost every country in Africa, and an offer to Johannesburg for $1,300. He figured he could use the extra $700 to get an apartment in January until his first paycheck came in. He sent an email to the travel agent and the reply came almost at once advising him to send the money by Western Union.
The next morning, Brent woke up with anticipation and left the room in a rush without breakfast. The ticket prices were subject to change and he didn’t want to take the chance.
On Thursday, the ticket came. It was the day before Brent’s big exam. He had spent the entire night studying for his final. He pulled out the envelope from his mailbox and stuck it in the middle of a notebook in his bag. He was going to let Etienne open the envelope. As he waited for the bus he looked around. For the first time, he noticed a name that was etched into the oak tree that shaded the bus stop. He noticed that the roots of the tree had almost displaced the black wrought iron fence. He noticed the beautiful spires the fence ended in, for the first time.
When Brent walked into the room, Etienne was sitting at the edge of the bed talking on the phone. His voice was soft and feathery. Brent guessed it was Georgette, Etienne’s girlfriend on the other end of the phone. When Etienne got off the phone, Brent handed him the brown envelope.
“What’s inside?” Etienne asked.
“Turn it over,” Brent said, almost giggling.
Etienne turned the envelope over and mouthed the words, “Blessed Travel Agency, Salina KS. KS?”
“That’s Kansas. KS,” Brent replied. Etienne carefully opened the envelope and pulled the ticket out.
“Johannesburg?” he screamed out. “Man so you’re coming right? Sweet. How much did you pay?”
“Only $1,300,” Brent replied.
“That’s crazy,“ Etienne said, grabbing Brent’s shoulder.
Etienne looked down at the ticket one more time. When he looked up, Brent knew something was wrong.
“Why is the travel date for twenty-eleven?” Etienne asked.
Brent snatched the ticket out of Etienne’s hand. The travel dates were indeed for twenty-eleven.
“I told him twenty ten,” he cried in horror. “I told the damned fool twenty-ten. What part of twenty-ten didn’t he understand?”
“It’s alright, calm down and call him,” Etienne suggested.
Brent raced for his laptop and sent the travel agent an email.
“He replies rather quickly,” Brent said as he tapped the table nervously.
“Hit refresh,” Etienne said.
Brent obeyed, his hands shaking as he did.
A new unread email was at the top of the list. The subject read, “ALL SALES ARE FINAL.” Etienne clicked on the message, it contained no text.
“Call the agent,” Etienne said, his voice rising.
“I can’t,” Brent said softly, fighting back tears. “They don’t have a number listed.”
Etienne picked up the envelope and looked at the postage stamp. The letter was mailed from Houston. He put the envelope on the desk and let his hand rest on Brent’s shoulder.
On Friday, Wal-Mart called. Brent did not get the job. He did not go for his final. As he lay in bed, he let the tears fall. He had not cried since his Aunt Sally died. His life was supposed to begin in twenty-ten. New job, South Africa, and his new teeth. As he cried, he sucked in air between his teeth.