Cover Photo: NEVER MIND THE BEASTS by Marcus Slease

NEVER MIND THE BEASTS

Right after the bubble pops, the gum is slightly harder than before.

SWEAT EQUITY


My mum gave a little high pitched moan. I wouldn’t call it a scream or even a squeal. It was just a high pitched moan. I went into the master bedroom and found my mum leaning over the sink. Palms splayed out and shaking her head. It’s the hair, she said. What hair, I asked. The hair in this sink, she said. She looked at me and said, “Henry a prostitute used to live here.” I didn’t think about prostitutes. It sounded like someone from a far away country I’d never visited and maybe never would. It was a boarded up HUDD home. A government foreclosure in a poor neighbourhood in North Las Vegas. 


I memorised the words SWEAT EQUITY because my mum and step dad kept saying those words over and over. SWEAT EQUITY. My step dad was at school learning the new trade of Air Conditioning Technician. I was scrubbing the walls. Giving the place a good shake down to make it fit for the holy ghost. The holy ghost didn’t like living in unclean places. I mean it could. Maybe. But not for very long. It could come and say give you a message. An emergency message. But it wouldn’t be able to hang around and give you that good warm glow. And you wanted the warm glow. It wasn’t just a warm glow from the skin on the face. It was a warm glow from somewhere inside. It was a glow from that gaseous substance called the spirit.


And  you have to make the place fit. In good shape. A good shape was vital. Can you pour old wine into new bottles. No. Well yes. But it’s not very good. You should put old wine in old bottles and new wine in new bottles. I had never tasted wine. Only beer as a baby. I barely remembered. But I do know the beer goes with the bottle. The better the beer the better the bottle.


I was a bit more water than fire. I was ambitious but not for money. I was ambitious for spirit. I was more inside. But I tried outside too. I did all the activities. But anytime there were sports, unless it was just grunt work, I could do grunt work, I was a hard worker, but if it were regular sports, like say Volleyball, where you had to show some skill, or American football, then I got scared. I mean I didn’t act scared. The only thing I liked about those sports was the grunting and sweating. I liked to sweat. It meant I was a hard worker. And hard work brings blessings. That’s why in sports I always chose to play on the losing side. You had to work harder. But also because I was a defence human. I like to play defence. That was my position.  I liked to try and prevent things happening. Like a goal. Or whatever.


I went to books more than cars. I didn’t know a thing about cars and didn’t care about cars. Except when I got one. A little red one called a Metro. Then I cared a bit. The basics. But I didn’t know the names and models. I didn’t get wet looking at an engine. But I did a lot of manly things too. Don’t get the wrong idea. I had to earn my keep. I had to  go out into the world and learn how, in the future, I needed to provide. Which means sweat. Lots of sweat. The sweat of thy brow it said in the holy bible. I worked two or three jobs starting at age 13. Some simple all-American jobs like paper boy. Then by age 14 I was mixing cement and nailing studs. I was never good at nailing studs but I could run up planks with a wheelbarrow. Then dishwasher, janitor, telemarketer (4 years), Burger King, McDonalds, KFC. And on and on. I took out a pile of student loans to get me through 8 years of university and continued to work almost full time on top of that. I was conditioned with drive. I was conditioned to succeed. I was conditioned to sweat.



A GOOD SQUEEZE


My mum said the good thing about winter in the desert is maybe the cockroaches were hibernating in their snug holes. And that was me. I had read Gregory Samsa. I mean Kafka. And I was an alien. I was a beetle. I wouldn’t assign cockroach. Yeah. Maybe not cockroach. Let’s say beetle. I had a hard outside. That’s what I learned really quickly. You had to have a hard outside. All the men around me had a hard outside. It was even a question in high school: are you hard? You never wanted to say no. You didn’t want to ever say no I am soft. That meant you were a pussy. Or whatever. It was better to be hard. Hard meant respect. For the girls and the boys at my high school. Well, mostly the boys. The girls could be hard or soft. Both were mostly OK.


It was winter and my mum was feeling good about not seeing cockroaches. She was happy they were maybe in a snug for a while. We had starting seeing lots of cockroaches since we came to America. It was a new animal and my mum was creeped out so I got sort of creeped out too. Like I said, I wouldn’t say I identified with a cockroach. A beetle yes. But not a cockroach.


I came home from school and spent at least ten minutes running my hands under the warm water so I could hold my pencil and do all my homework. Then my mum called for me to come to the backroom. The midwife was there and Akia was howling outside. My mum leaned against the dresser. I felt fear, maybe shame, of seeing a woman’s private parts for the first time, and they were my mum’s. Which is maybe OK since that’s where we all come from. At least as far we all know. They may have grown human animals in labs.  That’s possible.  But most of us, at least, come from a woman’s private parts. But at a certain age you don’t want to see your mum’s private parts anymore. They are taboo. Off limits. And you don’t like it when friends talk about your mum’s private parts. It is a put down. There are mum jokes and fat jokes and mum fat jokes and they were all the rage during recess at all my schools in America. But that was a joke. And this was not a joke. I was face to face with my mum’s private parts at age 14.


And my mum leaned against the dresser and groaned. And she crowned as they say. And my baby brother came out holding his breath and then looking around and screaming as he entered hell and heaven and heaven and hell and all that. It was a big scream but it was also a profound scream. I mean me, my step dad, my mum, the midwife, we all felt a warm glow from inside us when we heard the scream. It was a new life and the holy ghost was confirming the entrance of another human spirit into the world. A spirit from the pre-existence had now entered the present existence and taken a body. It wasn’t going to be easy. Nobody said it was going to be easy. That’s what the big poster of Jesus with nails in his hands and hanging from a cross with a crown of thorns said underneath it. Nobody said it was going to be easy.


The midwife pulled out the placenta. She pointed at the corn in the placenta. Your mum ate so well, she said. She passed around the placenta. First to my step dad, then to me, then to my mum, and then back to the midwife. We all gave it a good squeeze.


NINJA


When my brother came out he was covered in blood. It wasn’t runny but it was fresh. His face was scrunched up. There was silence and then a scream as the midwife held him upside down. So he can breathe, she said. My mum said my face was in shock. All the grunting and a human animal coming out of my mum’s body. That was a bit shocking.


The body was supposed to be invisible. I wasn’t supposed to think about my body. I mean other than maintenance and prevention. Like a car. My body was a vehicle for my spirit. I had to check the oil. Give it enough gas. And the better the gas, the higher quality I mean, and that goes for oil too, the better your little car body will run. That’s why we had the word of wisdom: no caffeine, no alcohol, no tobacco etc. You need to keep both the outside and inside clean. You need to vacuum your car. You need to wash your behind the ears and all. 


But I didn’t really like cars all that much. I was not a car human. Or a machine human. OK. I was a little bit machine human. But only when the machine could take me into another universe. Like my Commodore 64 with a joystick. 


Somewhere along the line I got scared of my vehicle. My vehicle had too many rules. No the road had too many rules. I starting feeling like maybe I could make my body invisible, like my spirit.


I got a black ninja outfit and eventually had a trunk full of Chinese stars nunchucks and assorted homemade weapons.  Sometimes I went out at night in my ninja outfit. I put a few Chinese stars in the secret pocket of my sleeve, just in case. I did the secret hand signs to become invisible. On one of my night missions I walked around people’s houses and did the hand signs. I thought it was working. No one looked at me. They walked right into their houses.  


I chose to become a Ninja, temporarily, for three reasons:


1) I wanted to be invisible 

2) I was looking for a new home in Asia because maybe I belonged to the ancient world of Japan

3) It was all the rage in the mid to late 80’s

Like a track star. I was gunning for all soul. And magic powers. Especially the one where you put your fingers together and make yourself invisible.


ALL-AMERICAN HAMBURGER


My mum called it valley joe because we had never heard Spanish before, not even on television. My mum kept calling it valley joe even after we learned the correct way to say it. My new grandfather, father of my new father, taught us the Spanish way to say it. The j was really an h. Val lay ho! 


Vallejo was the first place in America we landed, or not literally landed, we had to do the JFK airport immigration shuffle with lots of crying babies, not Ellis Island, that was a long time ago, we came in 1985. I didn’t see the Statue of Liberty. There was no grand entrance.


In Vallejo we lived in the trailer park and we went to K-Mart. K-Mart was Disneyland for adults. I might be exaggerating. It wasn’t that good. There was a blue light and it flashed and all the mothers ran to the blue light and ripped through the clothes. You could see the hands of mothers become daggers. My mum wanted to join the other mothers at the blue light special free-for-all but she was polite about it. She waited until there was a space and said sorry sorry if she bumped into someone. We had to learn the American way. No sorries necessary. Elbows necessary. One for all and one for all. Or something like that.


It was the day of the blue light special at K-Mart when I had my first all-American burger.  I had something like an American hamburger back in Milton Keynes, in 7-Eleven, where my mum used to work. It had a big American flag and said American Hamburger. You warmed it up in the microwave and it tasted like cardboard. And the meat was thin grey and watery. It wasn’t as good as the minced meat we had at home with onions and spuds. So I wasn’t all that keen on having another cardboard All- American burger. But K-Mart was different. This was a hamburger in America. I was getting it from the source. And behold it was big. It did cover most of my face. And the bun wath seedy and puffy. And there were many sauces.


Everything got bigger and bigger and we got smaller and smaller. Or everything got bigger and bigger and we couldn’t get our mouth around it. It was a hamburger bigger than my face. And it made me exceedingly glad! 


AMERICAN CHOCOLATE


I walked with my mum to try to find chocolate.  We walked over a bridge and then across a freeway and then across a highway. We didn’t know where we were going. We eventually found a small shop and loaded up on chocolate. My mum decided to take out a chocolate bar for the journey back to the trailer. It was something called Hershey's. She took a bite. I took a bite. Then she took out another chocolate bar. It was called Mr Goodbar. It had nuts in it. I loved nuts. When we finished both chocolate bars my mum said, It’s not like the chocolate back home so it isn’t. It’s got wax in it. I looked at my mum. I said, wax. She said, wax. But it was OK. It was still something like chocolate.


When we got back to the trailer park my new grandfather said hello. He was extra nice to me. He called me the black sheep. He said he was a black sheep too. I didn’t know what a black sheep was but that was OK. I liked it because it sounded nice because of the way he said it. My new grandmother was angry. I didn’t know what she was angry about. Maybe she didn’t like my mum. Maybe she didn’t like me. Maybe she didn’t like the trailer. We put the rest of the chocolate in our little room. But later that night my new grandmother found the chocolate. She said, We don’t hide food in this house. She took the rest of the chocolate and passed it around to the house guests.


The houseguests were a man named Harry. Or maybe Larry. He was short and had a bushy face. His face was all bush. He ate two of the chocolate bars. The other house guest was a woman. A very large woman. She smiled. She seemed maybe nice. Her name was Carrie or maybe Mary.  She ate the other two chocolate bars. That left one for me and one for my mum. We said we would eat it later. My new grandmother said, OK but you leave it in the open. Where we can all see it. She said it slowly to make sure my mum understood. I knew my mum understood. I didn’t understand how speaking slowly made anything better.


HAMBURGER HELPER


The secret to a good life in the trailer park in California, and maybe for a life in America as a whole, was to make it simple and quick. And simple and quick was Hamburger Helper. It was flakey noodles and packet sauce every night for almost four months in the trailer park. They called the meat Chuck. It was Chuck meat. There was a helping hand. We watched the adverts on the telly with the helping hand. It was a white glove with a red nose and a smiley face. Like a talking snowman. But it wasn’t a snowman. It was a talking hand. A talking helping hand. The noodles were hard and the packet sauce was sickly sweet. It was sickly sweet meat sauce. Every time we saw the ads during the ABC movie I looked at my mum. She was making the face that described what my stomach was feeling. We sat on the brown couch full of holes and tried to watch a Clint Eastwood monkey movie. Or a western with John Wayne. I knew John Wayne from Northern Ireland. He was the same in America. In between the ABC movies the adverts kept coming on. Just when you were getting into the movie. And every time the Hamburger Helper ads kept coming on my mum said, Ach why do they have so many adverts between the movies? My new grandmother said we were in a free country now. In a free country they had lots of adverts. 


We watched E.T. right before we came to America. Right before we all got converted in Milton Keynes England. We watched a bootleg copy with the branch. There were no adverts. The branch is a small gathering of Mormons. If it was a larger gathering it was called a ward. We didn’t have a ward. We had a branch. It was a bootleg copy and the sound was a little off. They were eating something called Pizza Hut. My mum said we could eat Pizza Hut someday and gave me smile. The next day during my mum’s break at 7-Eleven we tried some chicken. The chicken had American flags on the styrofoam box. Then later they got American hamburgers. Both the frozen chicken and frozen hamburgers had big happy American flags on the front of the box. We warmed it up in the microwave and it always tasted like cardboard. Shortly after that my mum was running down the steps of some court house with the paperwork. She knew all along. She was preparing us for America with American food from her work. We are going to America. We are going to America screamed my mum. 


HOW WE GOT TO AMERICA


We sold everything, including all my toys, and we got almost $1500. My step dad said it should be enough to get going in America. At least until he got his first pay check from laying insulation on the roofs of casinos in Las Vegas. We would live in a trailer until then with his father and mother and his sister and her husband. Me, my 2 year old brother and baby sister and mum all in one room. Sacrifice brings forth blessings said someone religious.


It was going to be different in America. My step dad had been laid off from the flavour factory. Then he commuted to London to drive the train on the metropolitan line. There wasn’t enough money. We got some government housing in Milton Keynes. In a place called Coffee Hall. The Mormons that came to our door said it was funny. Coffee Hall. They didn’t believe in coffee. I mean drinking it. It was bad for the belly. The first Mormon prophet got some words of wisdom and it said hot drinks were bad for the belly. My parents stopped drinking coffee and tea. They stopped smoking. They were converted. My step dad got a new job in the Mormon church. It was called a calling. His calling was to help the missionaries get more converts. Many sets of Mormon missionaries came and went. My step dad brought new people to our house in Milton Keynes for conversion. It was the new hope. Everyone wanted a little hope in the housing estate. Over 30 people were converted. 


It was one of those Mormon missionaries who had a dad who owned an insulation company in Las Vegas. He was the one who lined my step dad up with a job. If you worked hard in America you could do anything. 


One of the missionaries brought us Tootise Rolls. He was from Idaho. He said it was American candy. I liked the name candy. It sounded more exotic than sweets. In America we were going to have candy. 


Shortly before we left for America, we went to the Milton Keynes mall. The Milton Keynes mall was the first American mall in the U.K. Young mothers sat near the water fountain to rest their sore feet after a day of shopping. They sipped cigarettes or fed their babies from a bottle. My mum and I sat near the water fountain looking at a rocket ship spraying red white and blue smoke. It was an American rocketship. America was moving further into the space race. They were winning. A song came and the chorus was: we are coming to America. Today. Today. We are coming to America. Today. Today. It was by someone called Neil Diamond.  My mum said, Ach, do you like the rocketship Henry? I nodded. She put her arm around me. Her eyes were bright. We had left Northern Ireland to escape the troubles. We landed in Milton Keynes. Now we were going to Las Vegas. Everything was going to be better in America.


THE COWBOYS


For that first Christmas in America my new grandfather took me outside of the trailer on Christmas Day and said, Take a look in the bushes Henry. Someone left something for you in the bushes. I parted the bushes and behold there was my shiny new BMX bike. I rode around the trailer park  jumping the speed bumps in the parking lot. Another present was a nerf football and a little radio in the shape of a football helmet that said Texas Rangers. I was switching from Liverpool FC to The Cowboys. I pretended I was Danny White. Danny White was a Mormon quarterback who played for The Cowboys. I wanted to be a cowboy.


The next day, what they call Boxing Day in the old country, I got my first taste of real  cowboy boots. My new grandfather brought us all to K-Mart with the spinning blue light. We went every few weeks. When the spinning blue light went off everyone pushed their carts very quickly to the blue light district. Per usual. But my new grandfather went to the shoes. He had a smile when he came back. He handed me a box. I opened the box and inside were some cowboy boots. They were made of mostly plastic. My new grandfather said, Try those on Henry. I sat down and tried them on. I kept them on as we walked out of K-Mart. They were my first American cowboy boots. I wore them for a month and then they disappeared. I don’t know where they went. That was the end of my cowboy phase.  


BUBBLE GUM PHILOSOPHY


I also got a gum ball machine for my first Christmas in America. You put in a nickel and out popped a card with the face of an American president. Underneath the picture of the president there were facts: where they were born, what they were known for, and most importantly, their number. My new grandfather said I should remember the chronology of the American presidents, in case I decided to trade in my alien card for a piece of paper saying I was an American citizen. The gum balls were big like everything in America. Red ones. Yellow ones. Blue ones. I could never blow bubbles with those gum balls. I tried. I read the instructions, not from the gumball machine, somewhere else, like on a bubblicious packet, the gum balls in the gum ball machine were all about American presidents, they were all business, I read the instructions, somewhere, but I couldn’t blow a bubble. My mouth was not full of bodacious bubblicious or Bazooka California righteous bubbles. It was full of the gum balls of American presidents. There is lots of advice for blowing bubbles now. Here is some  modern day instructions for the blowing of bubbles, in case you would like to try and become successful, the younger you start the better, as they say, but it is never too late to start blowing bubbles. Here is piece of advice number 1:


Many bubble blowing experts suggest removing the sugar without chewing the gum for too long, as this might take a very long time. The way to do this is to chew the gum for approximately five minutes, then take it out of your mouth, roll it into a ball, and hold it under warm, running water for five minutes (you should do these things simultaneously: hold it under warm, running water while you are rolling it into a ball). The sugar should then come out onto your hands and wash off in the water.   


OK, so what this is saying, basically, is don’t sugar-coat your life. Look at pictures of Jesus. Either in the garden, where you can imagine him bleeding from every pore, rather than on the cross where it was just very painful and in public for all to see, you did your suffering in your own garden. Bleeding from every pore. I mean you can’t bleed from every pore. But that’s your example. If you think you have it hard, imagine Jesus bleeding from every pore. So yeah. Rub off that sugar and get to work. Sacrifice brings forth blessings. And don’t let too much sugar into your life. Don’t get carried away with the body. It was going to suffer. Focus on the spirit instead.


Another piece of advice is to stick to one goal at a time. Later, in my advanced Mormon phase, I got what’s called a Franklin Covey planner. Or was it a Benjamin Franklin planner. It was a planner because you needed to have clear goals. I put my goals all over my walls. Until maybe 20 when I got married to a recent high school graduate, but that’s another story. Here is the second piece of  advice from the bubble gum blowing website:


Putting more gum in your mouth when you already have some may hurt your performance rather than enhance it.


In other words, it is important to stick with your goals. Don’t get caught up with too many goals. Don’t get scattered. Too many eggs in one basket or trying to get too many birds in your hands when there is already one in the bush. Or whatever. 


But what happens when you get stuck? When the gum gets stuck in the wrong places. The best is All-American peanut butter to unstick your All-American gum.  Again, from the bubble gum blowing website:


The oils in peanut butter have been known to soften the gum. This, of course, makes it easier to loosen the gum and pull it out with your fingers (or comb, if you wish to keep your fingers sticky-free). Mayonnaise and butter work as well. Ice cubes are recommended for gum in other places, such as furniture or the bottom of your shoe. They harden the gum so that you can chip away at it. Rubbing alcohol and cotton are recommended only if you get gum stuck to the soles of your shoes.


There was gum underneath the desks in my first American school in Vallejo. I don’t remember the name of the school. I do remember they couldn’t figure out if I belonged in 5th grade or 6th grade. They assumed I was probably a whiz kid because I had a British accent (with some leftover undertones of a Northern Irish one). Just  like they thought I could maybe play football/soccer better than the Americans because I was from the old country, Europe, where everyone played or watched football around the clock. Which was true. I did watch a lot of football. I had a subbuteo set and posters of Ian Rush and Liverpool FC uniforms, for home and away, the red and the yellow, and Liverpool FC scarfs. And most of all in big huge letters across the wall of my old room: YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE. But I was not a great football/soccer player. I could play defence OK. But I wanted no glory.  I mean I can’t imagine wanting to walk down the street with a big bubble covering my face and everyone looking at me. Maybe I wanted to live in a bubble. That’s probably it. Everyone wants a bubble. But I liked popping bubbles. Sticking your finger in the bubble and watching it splat all over someone’s face, preferably a beautiful girl with shiny skin, or a jerky jock with python biceps. But that never happened. I never popped anyone’s bubbles. I am only dreaming again. The gum underneath the desk was a bad surprise when you put your hand under there. You could leave your own gum there but it was bad news to get someone else’s gum on the end of your finger.


I lived in my own bubble, mostly, in Milton Keynes England, for four years before coming to America. So when the kids said nooooo when I bent down to drink from the water fountain, I didn’t listen. Not because I didn’t care about other people. I am a carer, or was a carer, but because I was somewhere else. I don’t remember where now. But I was somewhere. So when I bent down and felt the salty hard piece of someone else’s snot go down my throat, someone must have placed it just right for the next pupil, over the little hole the water spurts out of, I tried to act like I didn’t care. I smiled. Everyone went Ohhhhh. Or ugh! Or whatever. But I tried to play it off. To be the stoic. That’s what I learned from the English. But later, a few years later, in the hot desert of Las Vegas, I was learning something different from the Americans. 


One of these was gumption. Have you heard of gumption? It has the word gum in it but it is not about bubbles. It is maybe the opposite of bubbles. It is spirited initiative. It is outward facing. It is resourcefulness. It is supreme confidence.  But you need the right conditions, or at least the right conditions help, the right conditions are maybe essential, especially at a young age. You need a cozy place to blow your bubbles. I was blowing bubbles in the wind. Another piece of advice from the blowing bubbles website:


4)  If you blow the bubble outside, it will pop quickly. Remember that large bubbles are so fragile that even the slightest breeze will be able to make it pop. Blow bubbles inside, and at perfect room temperature.


We went out into the big American wilderness of Las Vegas, after the trailer park in Vallejo, and tried to blow our own bubbles.  Did we succeed? There is no end. It felt like there was no end to blowing bubbles. But maybe there was. I mean there was definitely an end of one bubble and the beginning of another bubble. We were chasing a bubble called the American Dream. If you don’t have a dream you’re not really alive. But just make sure it is really your dream.  And in America there was plenty of bubbles. Plenty of bubbles for everyone. You just had to have gumption and blow your own bubble. Just be careful when it pops, as all bubbles must. And remember that you can’t blow good bubbles with old gum. The last piece of advice about blowing bubbles from the blowing bubbles website says:


5) Right after the bubble pops, the gum is slightly harder than before


MR ROPER


We left the trailer park in Vallejo and went into the wilderness of Las Vegas. We packed a few boxes and took a few hundred dollars. We tried to find an apartment but we needed a deposit. Finally we found an apartment because the manager took pity on my mum with two small babies and me.  I was in between a child and an adolescent. Aged 11. When I see the manager now I imagine Stanley Roper, the manager in the American tv show Threes Company, which was the first show I got hooked on, after the famous American early morning Saturday cartoon marathons. But, in truth, I don’t remember what that manager looked like. And even if I did, would he still look like that now? So let’s say yes he was Mr. Roper, because that gets at the spirit of the manager. The spirit of the thing rather than the letter. 


Mr. Roper brought me to an old tool shed and gave me a pair of metal roller skates. My mum said I was lucky. No one else had real metal roller skates. Everyone else had plastic. And sure wasn’t metal better than plastic. I looked at the roller skates. I didn’t want to wear them around the apartments but I picked them up and smiled and said thank you. I acted surprised and happy and grateful like I had done many times. But even though I didn’t want those metal roller skates, who cares if metal ones were of better quality and lasted longer and all that, plastic was in. America was a land of plastic and I wanted the plastic too. Plastic was invented by a Belgian living in New York in 1907. Plastic was everywhere on the planet, it wasn’t only in America, but America was the king of plastic. Who ever heard of metal roller skates? I think I wore them once or twice and then put them under my bed. 

Mr. Roper was alright. I am going to say he was a smiley human because that’s how I remember him. Here are the facts:

Mr. Roper let us in without a deposit 

We sat on the unpacked boxes in our first American apartment with our very first sausage McMuffin and steam was coming off the flat sausage. My mum had egg in hers so we swapped halfway through.


MY FIRST AMERICAN FRIEND 


My first real American friend, for about six months, was the biggest kid in the class. I acted more naive than I was. In other words, the submissive and pleasing energies were dominant. And Jose was my protector. He had my back. I went to Jose’s apartment after school and drank Five Alive. Jose told me all about the American presidents and tried to show me how to throw and catch a baseball. I was never very good. But he kept trying to teach me everything. First about American sports. Then a bit about American history. He was my protector and teacher.  My first choice was invisibility, but that wasn’t working out. I had to pass as American and Jose was going to help me.


Jose had a house but his backyard was a desert with rusting cars. His mum had long red nails and her hair was tied in various knots. She was a dancer he said. What kind of dancer I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. I didn’t know about the world of dancing. But she was pretty. I could see that Jose’s mum was pretty. When I told Jose his mum was really gorgeous, I probably said the word gorgeous, Jose said he didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to talk about the beauty of his mother. 


There was the endless roar of city traffic and sometimes we all went to the 7-Eleven for slurpies and Now And Laters after spin the bottle. We played spin the bottle five or six times and I was just waiting for the blue or red slurpie afterwards.  I liked the chewy Now And Laters too. You got to taste them now and also later. Jenny often went with us. She was from Arville Apartments too and had a metal mouth. She was nicknamed bubblicious. She was called bubblicious even though she had a metal mouth. Her big red bubbles outweighed the metal in her mouth. She blew big bubblicious bubbles, they were watermelon flavour and you could smell it, while the guys spun on cardboard and did the moonwalk and tried to move like a robot. Jose tried to teach me but I wasn’t any good. I was maybe a little good. But I couldn’t do any of the spinning. I was just sort of good at the robot. Jenny blew those watermelon bubbles the whole time. I can see smell them.


We were sitting in Jose’s apartment after school one day when he first told me about spin the bottle. Have you ever played spin the bottle, he asked. I said I hadn’t. The next day he got a group of us together near the sand lot in the middle of the apartment complex. We played spin the bottle. When I spun the bottle it landed on a girl with big bangs and a big mouth. Her name was Rachael and she was also looking out for me. She tried to teach me cursive writing and cursing too. She wore a sparkly pink bobble for her ponytail. She took me down a dark alley and slipped her tongue on top of mine. It was wet and slimy and she smelled like fried onions and fish. When we came back I put on a pretend smile. I was good with the smiles. Everyone told me to keep smiling. I was getting positive reinforcement for smiling all the time.  I practiced smiling in the mirror. That was my type. I was the smiler. I was not interested in kissing. I was a friend of Jesus. I was interested in the spirit. Not the body.


ROCKY IV


Pat lived in Arville Apartments like us. He lived with his single dad. His single dad was something like 60 and had arthritis. Pat was going to be a pro basketball player. He practiced everyday. Pat was ginger. With freckles. A half smile. Almost white. His dad gave him some change for his main meal of the day at McDonalds. Sometimes I went with him and he gave me some of the fries. I chummed around with Pat for a long time. I tried to play basketball but I was used to using my feet not my hands. I wasn’t very good. I stated carrying a ghetto blaster with me. It had a double tape deck. I mostly played the Rocky IV tape. I decided I was going to be a boxer. I identified with Ivan Drago. I put up posters of Ivan Drago on the light poles of Arville apartments for the big fight. A boy said he would fight me and he would be Rocky. Everyone said I looked like Ivan Drago with my blond shaved head. I was taller than most people. Beanpole skinny and tall. Fight night came and I went into a frenzy. I didn’t know what I was doing. I let out all the energy and anger and confusion stuffed down inside me. I backed the kid into a tree and pounded his face with the boxing gloves. My body was doing something all on its own. The neighbourhood kids stopped the fight and I was declared the winner. My status went up for a few days. But only for a few days. I saw the kid I fought walking around the apartment complex by himself. I had won my title from another immigrant loner. I gave up my dream of becoming a boxer.


AMERICAN CANDY


We all crowded up the stairs to watch a boy aged 14 kiss a girl aged 19. This is what we saw:


Characters: A 14 year old boy. Black. Dreadlocks. Skinny. A 19 year old girl. Long brown hair. Silky. Large hips. 


Action: Heads moving in circles to a rhythm. Perhaps to some music. The music is inside. It is silent music for the peeping children.  Zoom to a slobber hanging from the 19 year old girl’s chin. 14 year old boy wipes it. Head moving in circles to a rhythm. Zoom to slobber hanging from 19 year old girl’s chin. Girl wipes it.  Third movement. Heads moving faster in circles. No slobber. Boy jumps up and sees us in the window. Peeping children book it.


Later we called it eating face. Some of the girl’s asked if we wanted to eat face. We didn’t know if they were joking. We did not want to eat face. There was the old lady, back in Portadown, misses Tittle, who said I was so lovely she could eat me. Maybe, deep down, we are all cannibals. 


Some girls were interested in me because of my foreign accent. They wanted to do the kissing. I didn’t want the attention. Candy was in love with Duran Duran. She wore Duran Duran t-shirts everywhere. She was a Duran Duran lover. Candy was 19. She sat around all day listening to Duran Duran and talking about Duran Duran. I liked Duran Duran, a little, back then, but not now, never now. I liked their song Wild Wild Boys. One day Candy called me into an abandoned building.  She did the finger curl and sexy bubble lips. I went into the abandoned building and she put my hands on her grapefruits. She guided my hands in circles around her nipples. I thought about Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi. I heard the wax on and wax off. Then she rubbed the tip of my penis with two of her fingers through my jeans. In circles. It got hot down there. It was heating up.  There was a little fire getting started. Then she squeezed it. She squeezed it and something dribbled into my underwear. It didn’t feel like pee. It was maybe a bit warmer. I pretended nothing happened. Then she grabbed my hand and stuck it down her panties and made me feel the wetness down there. My hand was a warm bath. She tried to take my jeans off but I said I was a friend of Jesus. I shook my head slowly.  Did I really say I was a friend of Jesus? I may or may not have said I was a friend of Jesus. But I believed I was a friend of Jesus, a very good friend, since, according to the Mormon church, we shared the same birthday: April 6th. So I probably said something about Jesus. Something about it being against my religion. I may or may not have said I was an actual best friend with Jesus. Candy laughed and threw her head back. It was neither a sexy laugh nor a witchy laugh. It was somewhere in-between.


It was probably shortly after that laugh that I noticed red marks all over Candy’s neck. She saw me staring and went quiet for a little while. Then she turned her head away and when her head came back she was in full effect. She did a sexy pose with big lips and tilted my head to the side. She started sucking harder and harder on my neck. I could feel my neck skin getting pinched. I pulled away. Don’t you like it, Candy asked. I thought I was supposed to like it. Wasn’t I supposed to like it? Candy looked at me funny like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what to do to pretend I liked it. I smiled.  Candy went back to rubbing my penis faster and faster. She asked me if I’d seen something else come out of it. My face went red. I could feel that warmth all over my face, and I didn’t want to show it, but the more I thought I didn’t want to show it, the more I could feel my face heating up. Candy kept saying she wanted to see what came out of it. When she took it out of my jeans some watery white liquid came out. She laughed some more and asked if this was my first time. She wiped the white watery liquid on my shirt. She said my face looked funny. She offered me a cigarette and I said no. I told her it was against my religion and she laughed. 


I walked with her to the bar to fetch her Dad. I saw her outside that bar, in the evenings, a lot. It was a very small wooden bar. Only old people went inside. Like all the bars I remember from my childhood. Except there was no  horse racing in these bars, at least as far I could see. We waited outside the bar for her dad. Her dad came out stinking of beer. It reminded me of all the smells of my childhood. I helped carry him home.


I wanted to learn how to catch the nerf football. I wanted to get rid of my mixed accent. I wanted to sound American. Every night I practiced moving my mouth in front of the mirror when everyone had gone to bed. I tried to imagine what an American walked like. How they emphasised all those words. All that American happy energy. How to say of ven and not uv ven. Or was it the other way around. I hadn’t melted. I didn’t know if I would ever really melt.

Marcus Slease was born in Portadown, N. Ireland . His fiction and poetry has appeared (or will appear) in Tin House, Hayden's Ferry Review, Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, and The EEEL. He has just finished writing a novel/memoir entitled Never Mind the Beasts. Never Mind the Beasts tells the story of Henry who, at age six, witnesses the aftermath of a terrorist attack in his hometown . Told in a series of vignettes, Never Mind the Beasts is a story about reconciling with PTSD and the trauma of our lives and allowing imagination, no matter how unconventional, to lead the way towards healing.