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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2023
Flash Fiction by Tony Hozeny.
Lyle awoke at 3 a.m. from a dream—a stray cat he’d chased outside had turned into a sobbing little girl. He reminded himself to take slow, even breaths. His wife Martha lay curled up on the far side of the mattress, the one spot where she could occasionally sleep through the night. April ice pounded the roof. Cold wind shot through the leaky windows. He’d hoped for spring and the end of heating bills. Exhausted but wide awake, he was dreading the long, cold trip downstairs to the bathroom.
By the time he’d walked five steps, his back was killing him. Heading downstairs, he held the railing tightly, taking no chances. Martha’s fall last spring had started the hip pain that never ended, even with Oxycodone.
The front door burst open. His grandson Zane hurried in. His hair was shaggy and dirty, his clothes disheveled. Lyle knew there was trouble at home. But he’d never imagined that Zane would break into his house. He’d never seen Zane’s eyes so black and wild. Lyle tried to cover his fear with a big grin.
“Zane! long time no see!”
Zane turned quickly away, eyes darting around the room.
“Zane, you’re always welcome, but it’s kind of late, and how did you—?”
“Dad’s key. Grandpa, I need money. I’ll pay you back. Just give me some money.”
“Well, I’m kind of short right now, I”—
“Come on, I’m in a hurry.” Lyle’s wallet was on the sideboard. Zane grabbed it.
“Ten bucks? That’s it?” Zane dumped out Martha’s purse. “No wallet? Where’s her wallet?”
Lyle couldn’t make his brain work. He couldn’t control the quaver in his voice. “Zane, Zane, what’s the trouble? You can tell me. Maybe I can help. But that’s no way to act.
You can’t just”—
“Shut up, Grandpa! I need money, I’m —oh, man, that’s Grandma’s jewelry box.” He held it tight, his wild eyes still scanning the living room, the kitchen beyond.
Lyle took a deep breath and stepped slowly in front of his grandson. “Now, son, she had that box out because we’re going to have to sell some gold”—-Zane dashed into the kitchen and grabbed a pill bottle from the counter. His eyes lit up.
“No, Zane, you can’t take those pills, they’re for Grandma’s back”—-
Zane shoved Lyle down, hard, and his back slammed against the wall. Zane flung open the china cabinet door, rattled through the plates— “Fuck! Fuck! Nothing here but a lot of worthless old shit”—and swept away a whole shelf. Lyle heard Martha calling to him. Zane dashed out with the things he’d stolen.
Lyle’s whole back seized into spasm, a rippling, stabbing pain. Tears stung his eyes when he tried to get up. He heard Martha shuffling toward the stairs.
“What happened, Lyle? What happened? Where are you?”
“Martha, don’t,” he called, but his voice was too weak to stop her. There was a loud thud, then her long, painful moan. He crawled toward the kitchen where he’d left the cell phone last night. The phone was dead. He’d forgotten to plug it into the charger.
My best friend Dale and I worked Saturday nights stuffing the various sections into the Sunday Milwaukee Journal. After we were done, we’d load them onto a delivery truck that arrived at midnight.
One cold March night, we had all the papers stuffed and bundled and ready by 10:30, so we pooled our cash—$2—and I dialed up the Italian Village and ordered a cheese pizza and two 7ups. We had the radio on. Ray Charles was singing “I can’t stop loving you.” Sam Cooke was next: “Having a party.”
“I’m going to flunk geometry, Rick, I just know it,” Dale said. “Sister Ralph hates me.”
“All the nuns hate us.” I tapped down my pack of Luckies, took one out, and lit up.
“I wish I had a girlfriend,” Dale said. “Then I’d want to study. With her. Hey, did I tell you I asked Rosie out? She looked right through me and walked away. Not a word.”
“Rosie digs rich and popular, like all the girls from our shithole St. John Vianney High School.” I pushed the cigarettes across the steel table. Dale lit up.
“But this is cool, right?” I said. “We’re out late, we can smoke, nobody to bug us. Like a little clubhouse, man.”
The door clicked open, and Bud came wandering in, listing a little to the left. Dale mouthed, “oh, shit.” Bud’s eyes were vague and bloodshot. Before I could move out of my chair, Bud did what he always did, grabbed me around the neck and shoulders and squeezed hard, blasting his beer-and-onions breath in my face.
“Come on, man, let me go.”
“Aw, you know me.” He slapped me hard on the back. “I’m just playing.” His eyes fell on the empty pizza box. “You didn’t leave none for old Bud? Hey? Hey?”
Dale and I looked at each other. Bud was friends with my dad’s boss, so we had to put up with him.
“How about a smoke?” Dale said, sliding over the pack of Luckies.
Bud lit up and took a furious drag. “Well, I been down the bar tonight, who you think I seen? The mayor! Yeah, he knows me, he says, ‘Hi, Bud,’ I says, ‘Hi, Ivan, let me buy you a drink,’ and he says, ‘I don’t drink!’ Can you beat that? Hey? Hey?”
“You know, Bud, we got a truck coming any minute here, and we better get ready to load it.”
Bud grabbed Dale’s 7up and took a long swig.
“Jesus Christ, Bud!”
“Fuck you, you little shit! You got plenty! You”—Bud’s face turned sickly white, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he flopped on the floor, his head thrashing, his arms and legs shaking. He let out a wild, eerie moan. He foamed at the mouth.
“What the hell!” Dale yelled. “What the hell! I’m getting out of here!”
“No, man, don’t go! My dad told me about Bud, that he might have a seizure. We’ve got to find something to stick in his mouth, or he’ll choke on his tongue.”
The desk drawer was locked. Bud’s moans turned into a horrible gurgling noise.
“I found this in the bathroom,” Dale said, handing me a paint stir-stick. I knelt, trying to place it in Bud’s mouth. His big body moved so violently and unpredictably I couldn’t get close enough, but finally his mouth opened wide, and I stuck it in there. Bud’s teeth clamped down hard. His thrashing and shaking continued. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, his seizure stopped. Bud lay still, piss spreading all over the front of his pants.
“The poor sonofabitch,” Dale said. “Is he dead?”
My hands were shaking so badly I had a tough time lighting a cigarette. “I’m scared, man. I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe we can get him an ambulance. I’ll call the cops. You stay with Bud.”
I heard Dale dialing the phone, then his strained voice. Bud’s face was still white. I hadn’t realized that Bud carried death with him every day. I pushed strands of Bud’s blonde hair away from his closed eyes.
© Tony Hozeny
Tony Hozeny is author of the novels Driving Wheel and My House Is Dark and numerous short stories. He has an MFA from Johns Hopkins and taught creative writing at four colleges. Over the past two years, he has placed several stories in literary magazines, two which have been anthologized. He plays mandolin in the Northern Comfort Band. He is married with three children and three grandchildren.