Have you ever been somewheres, and there was people speakin’ the names of those you thought was dead, and some of those names belonged to you?
“Rhonda, Rhonda, Rhonda.” And there it is.
Before Hurricane Sally spanked me all over Juacamole County, I lived in Ezekiel, Mississippi. I wasn’t proud of it or nothin’. I grew up a fast-struttin’ kiddie—a horn-dog cinephile. I watched Footloose on the VHS. I rewound Kevin Bacon’s denim bun-cakes ‘til my pupils spun. And there’s one mouseburger you can’t swallow: in my horny youth, I was a frickin’ hootenanny genius. The dance academy even sent a couple of madames to take a notion of my toes. But one of them got her chiffon scarf caught behind a Gator two-seater and strangled herself past recollection. That’s all gravy, but in the 12th grade something pretty farty happened and my life froze over and I never did boogie again.
I’d seen my cousin-crush, Mr. Benji—don’t ask about the name—get mauled by a clan of feral Presbyterians. No way that don’t have psychologic implication on folks. But that story contains hooch and unhappiness, and does not bear repeating here.
I been lovin’ Mr. Benji long time. I first met him atop a derelict pontoon out on Muskogee Lake. We shared a Snoopy Bar and a chaste kiss that turned felonious when we fuck-sank the boat.
See, at Ezekiel Remedial High School, Mr. Benji was “pimento stud.” Everybody had the randy-trousers for him. Principal Coco even bought him an electric scooter and Mr. Benji rode that damn thing everywheres. He rode right over my ballerina toes and two members of the PTA. For our homecoming parade, we stitched Mr. Benji’s face onto the American flag, and when we stood for Jesus Prayers, I felt we were prayin’ to Mr. Benji. At Sunday service, Pastor Douglas yelled about it, but nobody else made a rumpus. After church, all of Ezekiel dunked Douglas into the marsh ‘til he got himself right. He’d blasphemed Mr. Benji, who was the star Q.B.
I could tell you a buncha things about that year I died—bitch about bad luck and badder decisions—but the long and shake of it was we were two forty-something high school seniors living in our skanky single wide out on Nopine road. We’d been failin’ Algebra II for twenty-five years.
Sunday. We’d had words, back in the trailer. One my former beaus, Reggie Hassenback, had fallen through the ceiling at Waffle House. I downloaded the viral video of him covered in plasterboard, gettin’ stuffed into a squad car. Mr. Benji got jealous and drunk, with good reason. There’s nothin’ that got me hot like a man who falls through the ceiling at Waffle House. Enraged, Mr. Benji grabbed Sweet Pea, my taxidermied cat, by the tail and threw her out the winder. Sweet Pea soared onto Nopine Road, and landed on the windshield of Mayor Wilkins’ passing F-150. “Sweet Jesus,” the Mayor swerved into our rutted yard and crashed into the inflatable birdbath. Mr. Benji stood like a man in line for his own ass-kickin’. His fingers dangled eerily, his mouth shrank to a sphincter, and kiwi-green face mask peeled from his jowls—his face a reconfigurement of new and old, like a redneck Frankenstein. Mr. Benji stood there sniffling until he collapsed into a sack of drunken sleep-mumbles.
“Mr. Benji, Mr. Benji,” Mr. Benji whimpered before he passed out, whittling his name into the bone of dead language. His tongue turned it over ‘til it became nothing in his mouth.
But I knew Mr. Benji was actin’ to do right, ‘cause later he cleaned the trailer and used his old jersey to dust the acooterments. So we was right away to bein’ amended, when the knock came, and there’s Mayor Wilkins, standing. Dorito-dip. Bulging panza. Church night in flames. “I done stuck my auto vehicular.” As soon as he got inside, the Mayor made a beeline for our half-bath, where he pulled the curtain and blasted out a twosie. We scooted outside, but it was just more heartache in the makin’, ‘cause out in the rock garden we seen Mr. Benji’s ancient Pekingese, stiff-up, and ain’t nothing like a dead doggo to really dick-kick an evening. We stood silent, while the Mayor pounded on the wall, demanding ample “wiping papers” and narrative-driven “bathroom literature.”
Earlier, before Sunday Funday and the Mayor were both in the pooper, we’d had us a plan. Me and Mr. Benji had a coupon for free dinner and a full can of bronze spray tan to get respectable. We’d chowed Everclear guacamole throughout the day, and felt equipped to make life-changing decisions. See, I’d colluded to win the Ditch Fishin’ Annual by giving the judge, Mayor Wilkins, a lively handjo. But we’d bickered the whole ride to the Dong Dynasty Super-Buffet, and from the way Mr. Benji was clutching his tom, I’d say he was destined for bad things. Our spat was over Southern Living, which Mr. Benji swiped from the Piggly Wiggly. He read that damn mag and put it on. All he talked about was “tater pie” and “patio style guides.” But we ain’t got no damn patio.
With a mouthful of soft serve I’m like, “You can’t talk fancy shit ‘bout them tater pies then steal the dinner rolls.” Mr. Benji threw one of them buttered dinner rolls, but it nailed Mayor Wilkins, in line at the potato bar. Wilkins picked it off the floor, with all the floor fixin’s, and ate it.
So we had to go to Ms. Wanda to put it in the right. Ms. Wanda was this lady who worked the fry line for Sutter Home. She’s a virtuoso of the fry cooker: she once deep-fried a pair of flip flops. We’d all been friendly a long time, but I dreaded her counsel and her tooteledge like the evening news. I tried an’ rung her, though of course she don’t answer. Ms. Wanda didn’t like the t-phone, and she didn’t trust the t-phone, and the few times I got her on the t-phone, I got nothin’ but The Malevolence. She never said nothin’, just waited for you to hang up, so as not to be unsociable. In her split-level, she blared great, walloping gospel records, so that you could never figure if she’s celebrating your arrival or your departure.
We had to work up to seein’ Ms. Wanda, so we cruised to the Country Club for a night beer. Outside Ezekiel Country Club—a rickety, tent-like structure, which collapsed monthly beneath the weight of self-regard—Rudy, this citified perp, sat with his ruthless lemur, Hammertime. Rudy took one look at Mr. Benji, and pointed to a cardboard sign with “No Yanks,” written in yellow paint.
“Bullshit, Rudy. He ain’t no Yank,” I said. Rudy looked at me and pointed lower on the same sign. “No Spanx.”
“These ain’t Spanx, motherfucker.” Hammertime lept up an’ attached to Mr. Benji’s face like in them Aliensmovies. Mr. Benji rolled around on the ground yellin’, and sensing damnation, began confessin’ all manner of kinky transgression: “I done farted in the nanner pudding!”
But we’d been kicked out of nicer places. Last week, we up an’ got thrown out Ezekiel High Church of the Walnut, cause I always “dressed sexy,” which made half the church horny, and the other half Anglo-peevish. But when you piss off the church, the whole town takes a shit on you. I had to revoke my standin’ title, “Nut Queen,” fork over the fifteen dollar stipend, and forgo honorary rights to line-cut at Piggly Wiggly. But they had me against a wall: it was that or they’d expel my niece, Miss Britters, from Mayo Middle Finishing School. Since Miss Britters was the brains of our bonehead family and destined for classier places than this shitbag town, I turned in my crown.
It was all for naught, though, ‘cause Miss Britters dropped out and started working FT at Piggly Wiggly. Since Miss Britters read for fun and could count to two thousand, she was considered “a real goddamn genius.” She was even “Pig of the Week” and everything, until she decided to read Howard Zinn into the intercom, which scared the nuts out of everyone, and caused the Mayor to have a heart attack right there in produce while he was holding a fair-trade coconut. When he recovered, the Mayor incinerated the nonfiction section of Ezekiel Library, for “spreadin’ sham thoughts,” and Reverend Douglas got so stewed that he did cartwheels around the burnin’ books. The rest of town got jazzed, until they realized all the Natty-G’s and titty mags were gone to ash, too. So all became grumbletonians.
But late, late Sunday. Fall was in the trees, I was hungover in the house, the Mayor was mowing in the back for pin money, and Mr. Benji was dong-down in the yard. He rolled over—with the last Conecuh dog in his mouth. He wasn’t following the Sabbath (he believed it was Tuesday), and he didn’t have work or even a side hustle, anyhow.
I knew something was wrong, really wrong, because the closest we came to right, was when we pretended the other person wasn’t there, and since we were always together, and always aware the other person was nearby, it never worked.
I called up Ms. Wanda, who picked up. She says:
“What was left of Him, none the other would have. And you looked to He from unknowing. He made a conflagration of misery, and followed in your flight from pain. But in dying you will outlive the meanness of your desire. And in death, you will seek all you knew not before. And in the hour of your end, His light will reach down to hold your darkness, split your stone heart, and you will not be a stranger.”
“Rhonda,” Ms. Wanda says into the phone. I wept.
“Rhonda,” she says, but I was already gone.
“Rhonda,” Ms. Wanda says, “She know God. God know her.”
Mike Itaya lives in southern Alabama, where he works in a library. His work appears in New Orleans Review, Superstition Review, and Four Way Review, among others. He studies fiction at Pacific University.