Out of Nowhere (Middle of Somewhere #2) by Roan Parrish

Chapter 1

THE FIST comes toward me in slow motion like some fucked-up cartoon, slamming into my jaw and knocking me sideways. My head hits the metal garbage can, and a few seconds later the blond guy’s load hits my neck and drips onto the cobblestones of the alley. Blond guy’s boots scuff cigarette butts, condoms, and wads of mucky leaves as he stalks toward the back door of the bar, cursing me out.

I didn’t peg him as being able to hit quite that hard when I chose him. He’d looked smaller in the bar, though once we got outside I realized he was about my height—six feet or so. Must’ve been the paisley shirt. Fucking paisley made him look like a wuss. I definitely ripped off a button or two when I shoved him to his knees in front of me, but he didn’t seem to mind. Didn’t mind when I shoved myself down his throat, either, staring past his light hair to the dark brick behind him and trying to pretend I was somewhere else… someone else. He minded being pushed away when he asked me to return the favor, though, and he sure as hell minded when I said I wasn’t a faggot.

My jaw gives a throb and my breath finally comes effortlessly. But it won’t last. It never does.

My vision’s blurry, but that’s probably mostly the whiskey. I drag myself up and stumble the few blocks to the subway, trying desperately to hold on to the calm and think of anything but the feel of another man. When my mind starts to wander to his firm chest and the rasp of stubble on my dick, I run through tomorrow’s transmission rebuild on Mr. Coop’s ’87 Volkswagen Fox until I can relax a little.

The calm’s gone by the time my dingy green-and-white awning is in sight, though, and the catch in my breathing is back, like I can’t quite inhale fully. Because I know what’s waiting for me inside. Nothing. An empty house filled with it. My quickening heartbeat throbs in the bruise emerging on my jaw.

Worse, I’ve sobered up on the walk from the subway and it’s still hours until I can go to work in the morning. The more aware I am of my breathing, the more labored it seems, and I bend slightly at the waist, taking a deep breath with my hands on my thighs. Desperate for something, anything, to distract from the quiet of the walls pressing in on me, I strip off and hit the weight bench. The familiar heft and clank of metal scraping metal and thudding on cheap carpet helps a bit. I lift until my muscles shake and my sweat smells whiskey sweet. If I’m lucky, it’ll be enough to let me fall asleep. But I’m usually not.

The second I flop onto the bed, still damp from the shower, the images start playing behind my closed eyes. Blond guy from earlier, but it could’ve been any of them, really—nameless, interchangeable, seen through a fog of whiskey and revulsion. Their mouths, their sweat, their dirty hands…. But I keep going back even though the thoughts make me squirm.

I GET to Big Jenny’s Dive around nine to meet Xavier. X has been my best friend since we played high school football. The guys on the team teased him for being a black kid from North Philly who loved hair metal instead of rap, and since I loved it too, we spent most of our time arguing about Poison, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard (which Xavier contended was only pop metal but I worshipped), Twisted Sister, Van Halen, and, of course, since they were from Philly, Cinderella. We’d replace Nas and Goodie Mob with Quiet Riot in the locker room stereo and push Play just as our teammates got in the showers, posing and roughhousing; then we’d crack up as they were stuck doing so naked to the soundtrack of “Cum On Feel the Noize.”

X left for a few years to get his MBA and we lost touch. While he was in North Carolina, he got married and cleaned up a bit. Not that he had ever been into much. Just selling a little pot when he’d needed the money and pills when he could get them. He seemed different when he got back, though. More focused. He put it down to his wife, Angela. I never got the whole story, but I think she basically told him he was acting like a dumb kid and needed to grow the fuck up. Angela doesn’t like me. Xavier denies it, but I know it’s true.

We meet at Big Jenny’s most Thursday evenings to watch two cover bands battle it out, playing hits from the seventies, eighties, and nineties. How loud the audience sings along acts as an applause-o-meter, and the winning band gets free drinks for the week. Cover band night reminds me of singing along to the radio in our garage when Pop still worked at the other shop, my younger brother, Daniel, sitting on the steps into the kitchen watching me and trying to sing but getting all the words wrong.

X is late so I’m stuck at the bar by myself. A couple of ladies in their forties chat me up. They’re clearly slumming it, their clothes a little too fancy, their heels too high to fit in here. They ask the usual questions: What do you do? Do you come here often? Are you married?—this last with exchanged looks and laughs like they’re reveling in breaking some rule they’ve set for themselves. It’s embarrassing and exhausting, so I do what I always do.

“You ladies want to see me pass a coin through solid glass?”

They make the usual expressions of disbelief and jokes about me being a magic man. Then I do the trick I’ve done a thousand times at a hundred bars, the motions as natural as changing a tire or unlocking my front door. The women’s delight brings others over and I do it again and again. An older guy buys me a whiskey and everyone’s laughing, and now talking is easy. I’m nodding and bumping him with my elbow at the appropriate times, delivering one-liners like it’s my fucking job, and he’s laughing and leaning in like I’m the second coming, and signaling for another round, and all I can think is that he likes me. They like me. This person I’m pretending to be. I do the trick again and again as more people wander over.

It’s just misdirection and practice.

“MY MOM and Angela had a total throwdown at Nika’s birthday party,” X tells me once he finally shows up, harried. X’s mom, Sheila, is a maternal beast. She’s totally protective of X and his sister. And now, of X’s niece Nika, the first and only grandchild, who just turned three. Sheila and Angela have been locked in a fiery battle of wills from the moment they met, which amuses me to hear about but stresses X out.

“What was it this time?” I ask. “Did Sheila accidentally buy nonorganic juice?” Angela is one of those super healthy people who drinks smoothies and eats nuts as a snack.

“Bro, when Sheila buys nonorganic juice, that shit is not by accident. It’s waving the red flag in front of the bull.” He shakes his head.

“Dude, did you just call your wife a bull?”

“What? No! I… oh.” He chuckles. Angela is kind of… forceful.

“No, Angela bought Nika some kind of… I dunno, car toy? A plastic car that Nika can sit in and pedal and it has wheels. Anyway, it’s cool. Like a mini VW Bug. And Nika loves it. But my mom has decided that it’s too dangerous because Nika could pedal out into traffic. And Angela has decided that my mom just wants her to take it away from Nika so that Nika resents her.” He shakes his head and downs his drink.

“Jesus Christ,” I say. “Hang on.” I grab us another round and X has perked up considerably by the time the music starts. He never stays mad long. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about him.

X elbows me discreetly in the side to point out that Katie has come in. I wink at her and she smiles broadly but doesn’t come over. Katie’s the kind of girl my mother always said she wanted me to marry: sweet and smart and not mixed up in anything shady. A nice girl. We’ve slept together a handful of times over the last year, and I know she likes me. But every time I scramble home afterward, or accidentally fall asleep and wake up to feel her in the bed next to me, her pillows smelling of strawberry shampoo, my guts clench and my chest tightens, and the next time she offers, I say no. She never forces the issue, but I can tell how disappointed she is when I don’t go home with her. I don’t know if she’s too proud, too scared, or too embarrassed to demand more from me. Whatever her motivation, it’s a relief.

When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that I had to be a good man or I wouldn’t attract a good wife and have a family. Her words. Being a good man meant treating nice girls nicely. My mom worked as the receptionist for a doctor’s office, and she would bring home out-of-date waiting room magazines that she quoted as gospel. You have to listen to her. Don’t go to bed angry. Buy her unexpected gifts. Tell her she looks beautiful no matter what. Marry a woman who will make a good mother. She would sling them at me like boomerangs as she cooked and I did my homework at the kitchen table, neatly pocketing each one after it had hit me so she could deploy it again.

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