Joyland

a hub for short fiction

The Rings

Eric Barnes' new novel Something Pretty Something Beautiful is now available from Outpost19 Books. Here's a repost of Eric's Joyland story from earlier this year.

The streetlights are shining white in the rain, one after another casting light through the windshield, the motion of the car bringing bright white then gray, the motion of the light seeming to twist the layers of smoke that hang, in circles, around us inside the car.

Carl is driving one-handed. Leaning down toward the gearshift. Taking a hit from his pipe. His face and eyes turning gray and black and white.

“Bark like a dog,” I say quietly, turning to watch him, smiling some at him, smiling wider and thinking I can cast my own little spell on Carl. “Bark.”

Carl is my good friend.

Carl turns to the road, resting the pipe in the ashtray.

“You got no wipers on,” I am saying, feeling my lips move. “Hey,” I am saying, turning to look at myself in the mirror on my door. Seeing myself through all that rain, all those drops on my window shining bright with the streetlight. Seeing through that my dark hair pushed back over my ears, seeing my face looking so long and still. Seeing my lips moving so slowly. “Hey, man,” I am saying, smiling at myself, and thinking I am talking a lot, “Carl. You got no wipers.”

I hear Carl turn them on. I look ahead and see the wet, bright road come into view. The red lights of cars are glowing nearby.

Carl is exhaling, his chest sliding to his stomach, thick lips spread slightly.

For a moment, all I want is to rinse my face.

But I am sure that feeling will, like everything, soon pass.

*

We are in a corner of McDonald’s, watching the high school kids come through, seeing them through the plastic plants beside us.

Most of them in pairs. A boy and a girl. “A gal and a pal,” I’m thinking.

For a minute, I can’t remember high school. It’s been years ago. I can’t picture any of it.

In my mind, I keep saying to myself, “A gal and a pal.”

“A gal and a pal,” I say to Carl and he doesn’t answer because he has no idea what I am talking about. “It rhymes.”

“I’m out of pot,” Carl says, scratching at the front of his t-shirt. Repeatedly pushing another hand through his real short hair. His head rocking slowly from side to side as he watches the people come in. His lips making the quietest popping sound.

With all that stray motion, he looks like some nightmaring kid in a crib.

“We’ll go to the Rings in a while,” he says. “Okay?”

The Rings is a bad place, with bad pot, where people who don’t have money go.

But Carl, he doesn’t really have any money.

“Okie-dokie, Matthew?” Carl is asking me. Staring at me now. Leaning back in his seat. Body motionless. “Okie-dokie, Matthew?”

I turn to Carl. He is still nearly motionless in his seat. Only his lips moving. Moving up and down. Saying to me, “Okie-dokie. Okie-dokie. Okie-dokie.”

*

Carl is trying to hand me his green plastic lighter.

I shake my head, leaning over the bong as the car bounces under me and the lights pass around us again, the white moving in angles across the floor at my feet. I spin the roller on the red lighter in my hand, hear that steady hiss and touch the flame to the pot in the bowl.

I am not out of pot. But Carl needs to buy his own. That’s our rule.

The car bounces. The car changes lanes. Light passes over me, crosses the glass bong between my knees.

“Oh mister,” Carl is saying. “Oh mister, mister, mister.”

*

We drive up to the Rings’ house and see like you always see the collection of cars in the street, tricked out trucks and jacked up Pontiacs with exhaust pipes blowing white in the winter air. High school kids and dropout stoners, visiting the Rings all day and night.

“Why here?” I am asking Carl.

He shrugs. “I’ve got no money,” he says.

*

Dark trails of smoke rise from the shining bowl and roll over Carl’s hand on the carb and skim past the stacks of magazines and drift finally into the dim, bad light around us in the Rings' small living room.

The Ring is sitting ten feet from us, this huge old gray woman, maybe 60 years old, with hair like a dry and uncut yellow lawn. A purple turtleneck. She’s rocking in her chair, gripping in her hand a ten dollar bill. She’s staring at her other hand, turning it real slow. Palm up, thumb up, knuckles. Twisting back around to the palm. Watching.

She doesn’t smoke pot. This is just her way.

Everyone calls her The Ring.

Carl strains his lips and he coughs a quick burst of white, hacks hard then and the hit’s gone, a thick haze now stretching over the table and touching The Ring.

The Ring’s smiling and pulling herself up and then shuffling off fast toward the back of the house. Someone’s knocking back there. Her gray dress is wide and stiff, seeming like one of those southern belle hoop dresses levitating Betty Jane across the dance floor.

I hear the kitchen door open and The Ring says, “Hello, hello, come in, I have some boys here already, but you can just join them.”

The Ring glides through the living room. She turns into the hall.

Two guys walk into the room nodding.

Carl’s nodding. His lips are still damp from all that coughing.

“We should leave soon,” I say to Carl.

I watch the two stoners put their grams in their pockets, turn and leave the room without sitting.

“Come over, sure,” The Ring is saying into the phone, rocking forward and back in her tall, grandma green easy chair. “No, we’re always open.”

*

I say to Carl, “Pick up dishes. Don’t break dishes.”

Carl got fired a week ago from his job busing tables.

I say to him, “Pick up glasses. Don’t break glasses.”

We’re standing in the Rings’ kitchen. There are more people buying pot in the living room.

The phone rings. The Ring picks it up, says, “Hello,” says “Yes,” hangs up.

Carl’s smiling while I talk.

“Here’s a hint,” I say, “the butter knives are the dull ones.”

He’s nodding and laughing quietly.

“Show up on time.”

He’s nodding. Nodding.

And I remember that I have a money problem too. You have a money problem too. All this pot is expensive. But I still have a job.

“What are we doing here?” I ask Carl. “Let’s go.”

He nods, still laughing, and goes back to the living room as a few other people leave.

*

I’ve known Carl a long time. At seven or eight years old, walking home from school, we’d collect cigarette butts and rubber bands and beer caps because, I guess, it delayed our getting home, made that 15-minute walk a one-hour journey, searching the grass and the sidewalk, under bus stop benches and around paper boxes. On rainy days we’d send Popsicle sticks drifting in fast flotillas along the narrow streams of water in the gutters. On hot days we’d find in the dry matted mess around the iron sewer drains the sticks that we and a neighborhood of kids had all launched.

*

This all started with The Ring’s son. People call him the Junior Ring. He started selling pot but then his parents took over. You never see the dad, he stays upstairs, but people say he keeps a gun up there.

People say the Junior Ring is a scary dude. People say the Junior Ring does some creepy drugs.

They always use words like that. They always say creepy and dude.

I turn to Carl. “Where’s the Junior Ring?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “They say he’s just fucking psycho,” Carl whispers.

“What’s he do?” I ask quietly.

Carl just shrugs. “All I know,” he whispers, his voice so loud that it must be carrying throughout the room, “is that he spends a lot of time in his bedroom.”

*

Carl takes another hit, leaning low over the table. He hands the bong to some girl standing nearby.

“What’s the Junior Ring do in his bedroom?” I ask Carl quietly.

Carl exhales slowly. “Takes acid. Does X. Shoots heroin.”

I nod.

Usually, I smoke pot at home. Smoking pot around strangers is like beating off in a crowd. Smoking pot, I do alone. Quiet and practiced and ordered and calm and hidden and alone.

*

“I hate coming here,” I say quietly to Carl. The Ring’s sitting again, turning that hand again, bending the elbow in the slowest of waves. Carl and I are sitting watching her. Like a TV.

“Smoke that,” Carl says without looking. I don’t, because it’s bad pot, but, in a minute, some other guy sitting near us smokes it and Carl smiles and nods.

*

Carl leans against the armrest, his legs up on the couch, crossed at the ankles near my knees. I look away, seeing past the dining room to two boarded up windows.

“Jill,” Carl says to The Ring, “we want another gram.” He turns to me. “How much money do you have?”

I didn’t know her name. I’m digging for a ten.

“Just give her the ones,” Carl says. “No one cares.”

The Ring’s smiling and standing and I’m reaching up to her to give her the money and I hear the back door open and I’m handed the gram.

“Smoke, Matthew,” Carl says.

The Junior Ring walks in, tall and thin, blue-white skin. “Hey Carl,” he says.

Cold outside air crosses my hands and face. It’s coming from the back door.

*

The Ring is pointing at my hand and I look down and I have the plastic red lighter. I toss it to her and she watches not moving but smiling as it flies toward her and lands on the floor near her feet. She picks it up, smiling big now. She presses the gas lever with one hand, folding the other into a fist and holding it against the end. Filling her hand with gas.

“This is her favorite trick,” the Junior Ring says. He has his head cocked to the side, staring at the table in front of us all. He talks quietly, but with a rhythm, like inside he’s humming a song. The Junior Ring is sitting in the chair next to the couch, his knees close to mine.

“You’re Matthew Smith,” he says. “Your brother always had a red lighter too.”

I nod.

“Where’s your brother these days?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Don’t know. In Alaska, I think.”

I hear The Ring spin the wheel and see her touch the flame to her fist, opening her hand in a bright flash. The flash is a white disk in my vision, at the center of everything I see. She starts laughing. She starts filling her hand again.

The living room seems very full. There are two guys and a girl in the room that we haven’t talked to and I can’t remember if they’ve said anything.

I close my eyes. Thin bands of red across a black depth. Shimmering specks of silver. The faint white of the flash.

“We can sit here,” the Junior Ring says. “Or move to my room.”

I open my eyes and The Ring lets off another flash. She’s giggling.

“I’ve got a TV in there,” the Junior Ring says. It’s like a song, his talking. A chant.

“I could smoke so much when I was a kid,” Carl is saying. “I’d smoke a joint and play some basketball and make it to class to nail some test and then ride the bus to work.”

I don’t know what to say. The Junior Ring’s staring at me, sitting forward, closer.

The phone is ringing.

“We could leave the car here,” Carl says to me. “Matthew. Let’s catch the bus somewhere. Like we used to. An adventure.”

There’s a thud on the ceiling. “Dad’s building his coffin,” the Junior Ring says in a whispering voice, his lips sticky, popping open in quiet release a few feet from me. “Isn’t that wild? A mail order kit. He’s going to use it for storage till he needs it. Old letters, that sort of thing. He’s going to put it here in the living room like a table. Thinking ahead, though, huh? Isn’t that wild, Matthew?”

I can feel a wind again, from outside.

*

There’s a knock on the back door, I hear the bang like I felt the fist swinging before the contact, see The Ring rising before she smiles and pushes off.

“Sometimes,” Carl says, “these are great seats.”

I spin the lighter, the wheel still hot and the flame hissing yellow.

The walls shudder loud, three times a sound on the ceiling like the man’s up there pounding a spike into a railroad tie. No one looks around. I sit back.

I look at The Ring sitting in the chair slowly counting a few bills.

“Do you remember when we’d ride the city bus?” Carl says, running the fingers of his hand along the edge of the closed curtains behind us. Turning a baggie in his other hand. He doesn’t wait for an answer, rubs his closed eyes in small circles. “Like, how we’d go to the movies? Kids sitting in the back rows and chewing dip and spitting on the floors. We’d take the bus way out to Fircrest and the bowling alley there and bowl a frame and sometimes if we missed the last bus we’d have to walk home. We had to run to be home in time, cutting through parking lots and yards and across Highway 16 near the apartments and through the golf course and across the fields to our houses. At night in the cold. The street lights real bright.” He opens his eyes wide, the lids pink curves. “When you’re younger you could handle these things better. Didn’t get so tired.”

The Ring is staring at Carl.

Carl is staring at me. “You want to take the bus home?” he asks.

I laugh and shake my head. He stares hard at me.

“You’ll like it,” he says, sitting forward like he’s going to stand. “I’m not doing it without you. We’ll have fun. We’ll get out of here.”

He’s excited.

There’s pounding upstairs, the noise shaking the windows.

“I don’t have change for bus fare,” I say and laugh and stop. “Really, man, let’s just go.”

He leans back on the couch. “All right,” he says and he’s nodding and looking at the Ring. “Yeah. You’re right. Load that bong.”

Carl drags the bong closer to him, slowly packs the bowl with pot.

The bowl is full, overflowing. He drops the empty baggie.

“How long have you two been sitting here?” the Junior Ring asks. He is stooped forward, his head almost touching Carl’s now as they smoke pot.

*

“I’m going outside,” I say to Carl. He’s stretched out on the couch. A blanket pulled partly from the back of the couch. Covering him.

The Ring is looking at him. Sitting back in her chair. The Junior Ring has his hand over his mouth. He is humming.

Carl looks up at me. “I’m so tired,” he says. “Stay and hang out.” He closes his eyes. “Stay.”

The Ring gets up and pushes past me, pulling the blanket from the back of the couch, covering Carl.

“I’m going outside,” I say, standing, pulling at Carl’s foot. The Junior Ring is watching me, smiling behind his hand. “I’m going outside,” I say again, louder.

But Carl can’t hear me.

*

I’m on the bus wondering where Carl went. It’s a minute before I remember.

It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a bus, so I don’t know where my stop is and I’m scared I’m going to miss it. I’m trying to stare forward through the pale white light in the bus and see through the dark windows and recognize where we are. But it’s hard and it makes me feel panicked for a minute, like missing my stop would be something terrible and wrong.

I haven’t been on a bus in years.

I don’t have a car, though. Carl’s been my ride for years.

I start wondering where he went again. It’s a minute before I remember.