“The Cut-Off” by Shawn Rubenfeld

Yesterday I dreamt that Brittani Palagru brought me into the girls’ locker room and let me touch her underwear. It was soft like the sheets I sleep on. It was red. I liked looking at it and touching it almost as much as I like Brittani Palagru—how she laughs at jokes that aren’t funny even with a mouth full of braces, or how if you look really close she wears shorts short enough to show the lines of her underwear, which I was proud to have seen and felt with my own hands. A feeling I liked so much that I snuck into my sister’s room and took a pair of hers. It’s red, too, and it’s in the back of my closet waiting for me.

As soon as school is over I plan to spend three minutes at my locker, ten minutes in the computer lab, and four minutes outside Mrs. Weston’s room—exactly like I did in the dream. And when Brittani comes, maybe I’ll say something. Like, you’re beautiful. Maybe I’ll lean in to kiss her. Maybe in real life her underwear is blue. Or white. Maybe she’ll show it to me for ten seconds. Maybe she won’t count at all.

Once I get through gym class and stupid ninth period softball I can find out. Once I get out of right field and away from that moron Cream Face.

“Hey, Little Larry, you paying attention over there?”

That’s Cream Face now. He’s in center field. I look at him and tell him to shut up.

“Next time let your sister play,” he says. “I’d rather be looking at her.”

“I hope a bird shits on your head,” I tell him.

Here are the reasons Cream Face is my biggest enemy. One, he calls me Little Larry. Two, he’s ugly. Three, he’s an idiot.

“Hey Little Larry,” Cream Face yells, “Brittani says hi.”

And four—most important—he’s dating Brittani Palagru.

“I think she’s looking for you,” he says.

Before I can tell him how little I care there’s the quick crack of a bat. Then I see a ball leaping over my head so fast that I can’t follow it and think about how much I hate Cream Face at the same time.

The ball hits the ground and bounces twice before frizzing the wall. “Get it, idiot!” Cream Face shouts.

“Shut up,” I yell back. The ball is still rolling when I reach it. It takes me two tries before I grab it. Then, after a big wind-up, I make a long throw to the infield, over Cream Face and the glove he’s holding in the air like a moron.

“Good job, Little Larry,” he yells. “You missed the cut-off.”

“Shut up, Cream Face,” I say. “I wouldn’t throw the ball to you if you paid me.”

“You couldn’t hit me if I paid you,” he says.

“I could, too,” I say. “So shut up. You’re just a stupid fucking idiot.”

“Watch your mouth, Little Larry,” he says. “It’s not my fault Brittani rejected you.”

I take a deep breath and hum “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I think about the smell of that locker room, the softness of Brittani’s underwear. It’ll be sweeter when it happens on its own—sweet like Brittani dropping her shorts; sweet like her red, cotton underwear; sweet like my finger gently sliding across it, like my finger pushing against Brittani’s hard skin. Yup, Cream Face has no idea what he’s in for.

§

When school is over, the only thing I do different than the dream is wait by Mrs. Weston’s room for twenty minutes instead of four. I do this because Brittani doesn’t come. But Mrs. Weston does. She flips around to lock her door and stares at me with a mix of confusion and suspicion.

“Are you looking for me?” she asks and points at herself.

I shake my head. She pulls on the door to make sure it’s locked.

“Is everything okay, Larry?”

I nod.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

I nod again. She lowers her head to ask who.

“My sister,” I say. “Julie Griffen.”

She pats the back of her long, curly hair. It goes all the way down her back. I’ve always wondered what she would look like without it. Probably weird. Like a car without windows. “How are things at home?”

“Fine,” I say, quickly, because they are. My sister, Julie, just broke up with her boyfriend, Todd, but she wouldn’t let me meet him anyway, so I don’t care much about that. My mother is working from home this week. And my father, who’s a pilot for Continental Airlines, is in Texas.

“OK, then,” she says. “Well, I have a soccer game to run to. My daughter’s playing.”

I don’t say anything.

“Did you start Fitzgerald?” she asks.

I’m not sure what she means. Then I remember the book she assigned in class: The Great Gatsby. And the author: F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Yup,” I lie. “But just the beginning.”

“What do you think so far?” she asks. She’s already started down the hall.

“It’s good,” I say. “I like it so far.” But obviously I don’t. And obviously I’m not gonna read it. I have more important things to concentrate on. Like Brittani.

She gears up to turn the corner, but stops. “I really think you’ll like it, Larry,” she says. Then she’s gone.

The school’s mostly empty, so I walk the hallways until my feet hurt. Then I go to the girls’ locker room. I call out to make sure no one’s there and walk to E4, where I slide my finger through the small holes of Brittani’s locker. There’s something in it, but I can’t get my finger in far enough to tell what. Instead, I push my face against the cold metal of the door. It smells like lemon.

§

When I’ve had my fix, I head to the spruce tree at 345 Maple Avenue, where the back fence of Brittani’s house meets the edge of the library parking lot. Once there, I pick at the bark and watch her yard: the shed with the broken door, the bikes piled on top of each other in the corner, and the pool. It’s empty now, but there have been days when I watched her for hours. When it’s hot she wears a two-piece bikini, just big enough to hide the curves of her chest. She mostly swims laps and dives from the diving board while her little sister calls out scores. Her sister’s name is Rebecca. She’s seven. Usually Rebecca leans against the back door and asks if she can go inside. I like listening to them argue. Brittani has a way of lowering her voice and bringing herself closer to the person she’s arguing with, like she’s asking what’s wrong or like she’s about to pet a dog.

Suddenly I hear a scuffling from the back door and Brittani walks out. She’s wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt and she’s twirling one of the strings between her fingers. The sweatshirt is covering her shorts. Right behind her is Cream Face.

“Do you wanna go in?” she asks. “My mom can turn the heat on.”

“Nah,” he says.

The two of them walk to the other end of the yard and onto a patch of grass where four lawn chairs are set up. They sit opposite each other. I can only see the back of Brittani’s hair. Cream Face is holding something and he asks what it does.

They talk and I watch Brittani push her hair behind her ears over and over again. I think about how nice it would be to stand there and hold the hair in place.

“You should have seen Little Larry in gym today,” Cream Face says. “He was talking about how much he loves you.”

“Stop it. No he wasn’t.”

“Yeah, he was. I swear. You should have heard him. It was crazy.”

“You always say that.”

“Because it’s true. Ask anyone. The kid’s a freak. Little Larry.”

“Do you have to keep using that name?”

“Yeah, you remember fourth grade.”

“But it was fourth grade. That was four years ago.”

“So? Who’s to say it’s any different now?”

They’re quiet so I take a step to the side and check behind me. When I turn again, Cream Face is slouching in the chair with both legs stretched in front of him. He smiles and I can tell that he’s thinking back to fourth grade. The funny thing is he wasn’t even there when Chester pantsed me. Only maybe three people were. It just shows how much of an idiot he is.

“Can you do me a favor?” Brittani says. She waits until Cream Face looks up before saying any more. “Can you go to my room and get my math book? I left it on the dresser.”

“You can’t get it yourself?”

She looks at him bitterly.

“All right,” Cream Face says and stands. I see his face briefly when he walks past the patio. He doesn’t look like he did during gym today. His hair is pushed to the side and his shirt is tight against his chest. I take two steps to the other hole so I can watch him go into the house. A twig snaps. Cream Face stops and turns.

“Is that fucking Larry?”

He runs over until his eyes are extra-large. He brushes the hair from his forehead and closes his eyes before opening them again, as if me being there is just a trick his imagination is playing on him. I still haven’t responded. If I can find a way to disappear, maybe he’ll think that it is.

“Holy shit, Brittani, Little fucking Larry is standing here. It’s him.”

Before she does anything, I run out of the parking lot, out of the street, hiding at Ralph’s Italian Ices. I order a small rainbow ice and sit by the window, but it’s hard to enjoy ices when your life has been ruined. It’s done. Over. I screwed it up like I always do. Cream Face was right. Girls will always be afraid of me. They won’t want me as a partner for square dance during gym. They won’t accept my invitation to Prom. They won’t talk to me or look at me or go near me or give me any of their time. Not like Brittani finally did. It’s just like me to screw it up.

There’s nothing to do when I’m finished except go home. I take the long way, past Johnny Putnam’s house. There’s a patrol car out front. His father works the night shift and sits out there sometimes. Without the uniform Johnny’s father doesn’t look like much, but with it, I almost want to shake. He’s sitting in the front seat looking hard at a cup of coffee. His hair looks like an animal. He watches me as I walk by. He waves. I wave back.

§

When I get home, I lie in bed and hold Julie’s underwear against my face. I hum “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I try to sleep, but I keep seeing Brittani. Her hands grip the wooden bedposts. Her hair is as dark as the room. Her breathing is quick. I put my hand out. I want her to take a step closer. I want her to come to the bed and step out of her shorts. I want to put my hands on her thigh and slide it up to her underwear. But I can’t because there’s Cream Face, holding her down. There’s Cream Face, saying: What are you doing, Larry? Who are you thinking about, Larry?

And then she disappears and we’re alone. Then it’s only Cream Face, smiling.

§

“Hey Little Larry,” Cream Face says at school the next day. He’s wearing a Yankees jacket. The kind the coaches wear. His hands are stuffed in his pockets. He smells like the space between a sink and a wall. “Did you have a good time yesterday?”

It’s just before English. We’re standing outside Mrs. Weston’s room because the door is closed. I’d make a run to the bathroom, but Cream Face will follow me. I know this for a fact.

“Well, Little Larry? That was you at Brittani’s, wasn’t it? Or are you just gonna start lying again?”

It’s only me, Cream Face, Chester, Andrea, and Molly. Cream Face gets louder and a few others look over.

“Well,” Cream Face says again. He has straight, brown hair curving into his eyes, almost like a mushroom. When he takes a step forward the hair bounces. “Answer the question, Little Larry. Why are you stalking Brittani?”

Chester, Andrea, and Molly are interested now. Molly’s chewing gum. It sounds like a clock ticking.

“Actually, I’m not,” I say. “But nice try.”

He takes a step back and turns to Molly.

“This freak showed up at Brittani’s house last night,” he says. “He was standing there watching her. I saw him with my own eyes. And he can do nothing but lie about it. It’s borderline crazy. He’s pathological!”

Suddenly I see Mrs. Weston. She’s wheeling one of those big metal carts with a TV and a VCR. I’ve never been happier to see an English teacher in my entire life.

“Are we watching this today?” Chester asks.

“Yep,” Mrs. Weston says. She stops wheeling and the remote falls off. She bends to pick it up and her back cracks. She straightens out and looks at me. Then she looks at Cream Face.

“How are you doing today, Larry?” she asks.

“Fine,” I say. She opens the door and everyone shuffles in. Both Cream Face and I stay put.

“Are you boys coming in?”

“In a minute,” Cream Face says.

“How about now?” Mrs. Weston says.

Cream Face grunts and pushes his way through. He gives me the death stare before going further. Mrs. Weston touches my back and I walk to my seat.

§

As soon as class ends, Cream Face follows me.

“If I see you talking to Brittani again, you’re dead,” he says.

“She likes me more than she likes you,” I tell him.

I go to my locker since it’s in a busy part of school. But Cream Face puts his ugly hand on the door before I can turn the lock.

“Are you an idiot, Larry? She thinks you’re disgusting.”

“At least I don’t have gorilla hands,” I say. I go right to 24. Left to 14. And right to 32. The lock pops open and I start pulling at the door. Cream Face is still holding it shut.

“She thinks you’re disgusting, Larry. She thinks you’re the most disgusting kid in school.”

“No, she doesn’t,” I say.

Suddenly Cream Face starts laughing. His mouth opens so wide and he’s laughing so hard that little sprinkles of spit fly out of his mouth. I’m trying to shut him up. I’m trying to tell him what a moron he is, but he doesn’t stop laughing. His face turns red. He has to catch his breath.

Without thinking, I wind my head back and shoot a wad of spit at his face. It splatters against his neck.

For a second he watches it drop down his shirt like he doesn’t believe it’s there. Then he wipes it and flings it at me. He lunges forward and grabs me by the hair.

“You little freak,” he says. “You’re gonna pay for this.”

He pushes me against the locker. The lock digs into my back.

A small crowd forms around us. I feel the floor shaking, the people looking.

“You’re wrong,” I yell. “You stupid idiot. You stupid Cream Face idiot. You’re just jealous. She hates you. She’s always hated you. She told me herself.”

Now the floor looks like it’s changing colors. I try to push away but Cream Face doesn’t move.

Before I can stop him, he grabs my shorts and wrestles them to the ground like Chester did. I try to pull them up but he’s already got a hold of the underwear. Next thing I know it’s down too.

“You really are Little Larry,” he says. “How fitting.”

I can’t move. I can’t even lift my shorts or underwear back up. Not with the voices laughing in circles around me, not with Cream Face talking and hands pointing at me.

“It’s the only thing we can trust about you,” he laughs. “Wait until Brittani hears about this.”

Soon, I’m down the hallway, pushing myself to the girls’ locker room. Shoes are squeaking in the gym, but the lockers are empty. I stagger to E4, Brittani’s locker, and put my head against it.

I close my eyes and listen for footsteps. I hum “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I put my hand on my underwear and rub up and down, waiting for Brittani, waiting for Brittani to hear about what an idiot Cream Face is, waiting for her to come find me, so she can wrap herself around me like she did in my dream, so I can smell the lemon of her shoulders, so she can tell me I’m not crazy, that she only made a mistake, that Cream Face is wrong.

I like you, I’ll tell her. And I’ll pull her close to me and I’ll keep my eyes open and I’ll make sure that Cream Face knows all about it.

But for now, I can only smell what’s sitting in her locker. I can only gently slide my finger through the small hole and wait and wait and wait for her to come.

shawnrubenfeldShawn Rubenfeld has an MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho, where he received a Writing in the Wild Fellowship and won the university’s 2014 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award. His stories appear in Portland Review, Heavy Feather Review, 580 Split, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. He currently serves as managing editor of Split Lip Press and Split Lip Magazine

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This entry was posted in Fiction on September 17, 2014