Literary Orphans

Taking Chances by Josh Denslow

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I noticed in the last few weeks that hotdogs weren’t settling in my stomach the same way they used to. But I refused to admit it. After I parked the last car for the wedding reception, I decided I would eat two jumbo dogs with extra sauerkraut instead of my customary one. That would show my stomach who was boss.

There’s a hotdog place on almost every corner, but I had my favorite. On Wabash under the el. No name out front. This huge white dude named Gus owned the place so we just called it Gus’s. Every once in awhile I let Gus park his white SUV in front of the hotel for free.

He never once gave me a free hotdog.

I walked over to Anthony in the cashier booth and asked if he wanted me to bring him back a hotdog. “My girlfriend made me a sandwich,” he said and ran his thumb over his mustache. If I were black, I’d grow a full beard. The mustache made Anthony appear slick, but he was actually a nice guy. Plus he had a hot black girlfriend that made him sandwiches when he worked the night shift. I wish we talked more or that he’d invite me over for dinner.

As I sauntered past the hotel on my way to Gus’s, I saw a mousey lady hovering near the key box. She had thick black eyebrows and a prominent overbite.

“You parked my car?” she said. I’d heard about flat lots across the city where some random guy would dress up like an attendant and drive off with the customer’s car. That’s why the union was constantly changing our uniforms. As if anyone noticed. This lady had given me her car, but she couldn’t even remember my face.

I nodded.

“I left my diaper bag.”

She handed me her ticket and I grabbed her keys. “Be right back,” I said. If I didn’t hurry, Gus’s would close. Even though I’d been going there for years, he wouldn’t stay open a minute later for me.

“It’s a pink bag,” she called.

Her black Volkswagen was on the first floor. As I dug through a pile of baby clothes on the floor of the backseat, I thought of how every Volkswagen I’d ever seen was black. I pictured a dealership filled with black cars, like a funeral procession.

I didn’t see a pink bag. Must be in the trunk.

I shut the door and immediately knew my night was fucked. The keys sat silently on the backseat, a small keychain with a photo of the lady’s chubby baby staring up at me. I didn’t even need to check the handle.

It was locked.

A rookie mistake that I hadn’t made in years. I bolted to the cashier booth and found it empty. Anthony was in the small bathroom, and I heard the water running. A textbook lay open on the counter, and I lifted the front cover. Calculus.

Anthony stepped out, still drying his hands.

“You have that list of locksmiths?” I said.

“You’re kidding me, Squid.”

He pulled the list out of the drawer and dialed the first one. “Half hour away,” he said to me.

“Too long.”

Anthony dialed another, and I called the bottom one on the list.

“This is Horace,” a young guy said.

“I’m at the garage on Federal Street, and I need to get into a locked car.”

“You’re in luck. I’m two minutes away.”

“Got one,” I said to Anthony as I hung up my phone and slipped out of the booth. I peeked down to the hotel and saw the woman standing there, her arms crossed.

I ducked into the elevator bank as a pickup truck pulled to the curb. My phone rang.

“I’m here,” Horace said.

“I’m in the elevator bank.”

Horace’s shadow turned in the truck. “You don’t want that lady to know you locked her keys in the car.”

“Exactly.”

He laughed as he got out of the truck. A portly guy, probably about my age. His white face was shiny under the streetlights, as if he’d used a pizza as a face rag.

“Holy crap,” he said when he stepped under the fluorescent lights. “Haven’t seen you in ages.”

As far as I knew, I’d never seen Horace before. “Yeah,” I said for lack of a better follow-up.

“Schaumburg High School, right?”

He had me pegged. I decided to smile and act excited. “Horace!” I said. You think I’d remember someone with that name.

“What are the odds?” Horace seemed pleased with himself, as if he’d somehow arranged this. “Remember that haunted house we worked at junior year?”

I wouldn’t say I’d worked at a haunted house. I’d gone with some friends to one run by a local group in an empty store in a strip mall. It wasn’t worth remembering until we were approached afterward by the lady running it. She foisted foul smelling masks into our hands and asked us to stick around and scare some people. I hid behind a plywood coffin in the third room and watched people walk slowly through, each of them expecting something worse than I could ever deliver. I never once jumped out. I spent the evening depositing my sweat into the rubber folds of the monster mask.

I hated being recognized. “Good times,” I said to Horace wistfully as if I thought about that magical night every free moment. “Follow me.”

Horace stumbled behind me, his locksmith bag slapping loudly against his thigh. “Wish we hung out more in high school,” he said.

I pretended like I didn’t hear him.

We stopped next to the Volkswagen. “I’ll have this open in a jiff,” he said. He leaned against the door and stuck a slim jim under the window. “These are illegal.”

“I know. They won’t let us keep one in the garage anymore.”

“That’s because people were activating the side airbags and the slim jims were being propelled into their faces. A couple of guys died.”

The lock popped, and I couldn’t help but picture the slim jim lodged in Horace’s eye socket.

I grabbed the keys from the backseat and opened the trunk. Pink bag right on top.

“Be right back,” I said and ran to the hotel.

I handed the lady her bag and she yanked it grumpily from my hands. “Sorry for the wait,” I said.

“Thought you forgot about me.” No tip.

I’d have to dip into my previous tips to pay Horace. He leaned against his truck as I made my way to the garage. “How much do I owe you?”

“It’s on the house, man.” He grinned. “It was good to see you. I don’t see many friendly faces around here.”

I don’t consider myself that friendly.

“Let me pay you something,” I said. I didn’t want to owe this guy.

“Let’s get together, you know? It would be great to catch up.”

Fuck. “Sure.”

“I saved your number in my phone,” he said, beaming at some view of the future that would never come true.

As Horace drove away, he stuck his hand out the window and waved. I’d be paying for this mistake for a long time.

Even though I knew it was hopeless, I cut across State Street and over to Gus’s. The lights were on, and I was surprised when the door opened. A bell clacked against the glass as I shut it behind me. The place was empty, but the tables were still littered with used napkins and paper cups.

“Gus,” I said.

“Motherfucker!” a hoarse voice called from the kitchen.

I stepped to the counter and attempted to look into the back.

Gus’s large frame barreled through the swinging door. He wore a white t-shirt that was covered in blood. He had his right hand wrapped in the front of his shirt and his enormous belly swelled out in front of him. Dried blood crusted inside his cavernous belly button.

“I’ve been stabbed,” he said.

My knees were so weak I thought I’d never be able to stop leaning on the counter.

“In the hand.” He grunted with pain.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. “Are you closed?”

“I need to get to the hospital. This shit burns.”

I thought about taking one of the valet cars. Maybe even that Volkswagen. But I knew the sensible thing to do.

A few minutes later, Gus and I were piling into Horace’s truck. I sat in the middle.

Horace gave me a jittery look, as if we were generating electricity where our shoulders touched.

“I know you’re injured, but could you please try really hard not to get blood in here?” Horace said to Gus.

Gus grimaced in reply and wrapped his hand tighter.

We drove across the city in silence. My belly rumbled. I hadn’t eaten anything in hours.

“That son of a bitch,” Gus said suddenly. “He’s worked for me for ten years. Came at me with a knife over fifty bucks.”

“Are you going to press charges?” Horace said.

“Hell no. He’s my ex-wife’s cousin.”

I didn’t follow his logic, but I didn’t say anything.

Horace nudged me. “This is like when Roger Baker got dumped by Cassie Smith but he still took every class with her senior year.”

I looked down at his locksmith bag on the floor, the slender metal of the slim jim sticking out of the top. If there wasn’t an airbag around to do the job, maybe I could just stab him in the throat myself.

“Shit! We have to go back,” Gus said.

“But we’re here,” Horace said.

“I left her dog in the back.”

Horace turned into the emergency room entrance. “Whose dog?”

“My ex-wife’s. She’s out of town and asked me to watch it. Some sort of Pomeranian or something.”

Horace stopped the truck, and Gus winced. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Horace said.

“If something happens to that dog…” Gus banged his head against the window. The roll of skin on the back of his neck was like a bratwurst.

“Let’s get you inside before you bleed to death,” Horace said.

“Squid,” Gus said. “Will you go back to the shop? Move the dog into the front and give him some water or something?”

I tried to look at him and say no, but he’d gone pale and sweat had collected on his distended cheeks.

“The keys are in my pocket.”

We piled out and he turned his hip to me. His left hand cradled his right hand in the now soaked-through shirt.

He expected me to reach into his pocket.

I took a step back. “Maybe a nurse can do that.”

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Horace said as he plunged his hand into Gus’s pocket and extracted a small key ring.

Gus turned to face me. “Don’t eat anything. Lock up and turn off the lights when you’re done.”

Horace and I walked with Gus to make sure he got inside okay, but the only thing I could think about was how even after all this, he didn’t offer me a free hotdog.

“Want to get a brewski on the way back?” Horace said as we climbed into the truck.

“I have to get back to work.”

Horace navigated out of the hospital parking lot and back onto the city streets.

“How about tomorrow?”

“Maybe. Give me a call.”

“You like bowling?”

“Not really.”

“Remember when our high school team won the state bowling championship?”

“No.”

“How could you forget that?”

“Because it’s trivial, Horace.”

He powered down like that pink bunny in the commercials when it ran out of batteries, slumping toward the steering wheel and breathing heavily through his mouth.

Horace was about to cry and that made me more nauseated than Gus’s blood. The worst part was that I knew exactly what he was talking about this time. It was the girls’ bowling team and I had jerked off repeatedly to their team picture in the yearbook.

When we stopped in front of Gus’s, I hesitated before opening the door. “I’m going to tell you something against my better judgment,” I said.

Horace straightened his back and looked at me as if I was the ice cream truck on a hot afternoon.

“I don’t remember you,” I said.

“I figured.” He nodded but didn’t look away.

“It’s nothing personal against you. I don’t dwell in the past.”

Horace put the truck into drive. “You might try taking some chances every once in awhile,” he said. “You could have told that lady you locked her keys in the car. Or reached into Gus’s pocket. Or jumped out at one person in that haunted house.” He paused. “Or told me right away you didn’t remember me.”

He inched forward before I’d even shut the door.

I let myself into Gus’s as Horace’s truck hissed along the wet pavement. “Here doggy,” I said into the empty shop and then realized I sounded like an asshole. I knew exactly where Gus kept the hotdogs and there was no way I wasn’t taking a few home with me. I’d throw them in some boiling water and then slather them in mustard. I stuffed a few mustard packets in my pocket.

I pushed through the swinging door and flipped the switch. A light flickered to life above me. At first I thought there was a rat near the back door, but it was a small brown mound that could only be the dog. Unfortunately, it wasn’t moving.

I moved closer and found the dog’s face. Its tongue protruded from its mouth and lay against the floor in front of it. Right next to a half eaten hotdog that was unfortunately the same color as the tongue. Its eyes were wide open and glassy. I knew it was dead, but I gave it a nudge with my foot anyway. It was pretty stiff.

There was a pool of cloudy liquid beneath it and I followed it back to its source. An upended bottle of bleach. It was either that or the hotdog that had killed it.

I thought about Gus and his ex-wife and this tacit agreement that kept him in her life. This death would be worse than any stab wound.

I decided to leave everything as I found it. And I didn’t take a scrap of food.

Something killed that dog, and I wasn’t about to start taking chances now.

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Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Black Clock, among others. He plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at Smokelong Quartlerly.

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–Art by Rona Keller