Carl had just begun chewing the last bite of his sandwich when there was a knock at the door.
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled through cheap bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Who is it?” he yelled.
“It’s Andy; open the door!”
“What are you doing here? You didn’t say you were coming over!”
“Who cares? I’m here; let me in.”
“Well, hold on just a minute! Why didn’t you call first? Jesus!” Carl still did not open the door. A visitor at almost ten o’clock at night?
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Just open the door!” Andy shouted.
Carl could not let Andy in because his tiny, cluttered house was a filthy embarrassment. He shot intense glances around the living room, spotting several dirty dishes on the coffee table, two pairs of soiled socks on the floor near the stained couch, and the carpet had not been vacuumed in over two months. The foul smell of unwashed dishes soaking in ancient cold water had found its way from the kitchen to the front room, though Carl had not noticed this until faced with the obligation of letting someone into the house.
“You’re just gonna have to wait a few minutes!” Carl shouted back. “Just shut up out there, stop yelling, you’re gonna piss off the neighbours! Give me five minutes!”
“You gotta be kidding me,” Andy said from the other side of the door, but he found a seat on a nasty old lawn chair.
Carl raced and fumbled through the house, cursing quietly and then sometimes loudly, trying his best to clean as if he were competing on a television game show. Why the hell didn’t Andy call first? What was he even doing here? Who just shows up at someone’s house unannounced? Both men were thirty years old and had been best friends since their freshman year of high school, though they didn’t see each other as much as they once did. But since neither had found a better friend over the subsequent years, they were still best friends.
Carl dumped the dishes from the coffee table into the sink with the others in hopes that Andy would have no reason to enter the kitchen. He ferociously ran the vacuum over random areas of the floor, pouring lavender-scented powder onto the carpet as he went. Covered in beads of sweat, both on his pale but reddened face and under his thin white T-shirt, he shoved the vacuum back into the closet, ran his fingers through his unwashed black hair, and opened the front door.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Andy asked. “What are you doing in there?”
“You didn’t tell me you were coming over. Why couldn’t you just call first? Jesus.” Carl’s breathing was heavy, his heart was racing, and he hoped Andy didn’t notice the shiny sweat on his face.
The two men entered the house, Andy subtly eyeing his surroundings. He looked far tidier than Carl, in a clean black polo and blue jeans. He was a fairly handsome man with a slight tan and dark blond hair—a catch near the cornfields of Indiana.
“Were you cleaning?” Andy asked. “I thought I heard the vacuum.”
“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten.”
“It was a little messy in here. I don’t have to keep my house spotless when no one’s here. I would have cleaned before if you had called. That’s your fault.” Carl glared at Andy, daring him to say anything more about it.
“Well, hey buddy, I’m happy to see you!” Andy grinned, wrapping his arms around Carl in an exaggerated but authentic embrace. Carl returned the hug, his face and mind softening at last. Then Andy licked the inside of his ear.
“Don’t do that! You know I don’t like that crap!” Carl yelled, wiping his ear out with his shirt sleeve.
“Oh, you did once or twice, if I remember.”
“Jesus, shut up about that, just let it go,” Carl said, trying not to smile. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you in a couple months.”
They each cordially found a seat on the brown microfiber couch, leaving one cushion between them. Carl subtly inhaled, hoping he hadn’t used too much lavender powder on the carpet.
“Doing good, staying busy with work, work’s going really well, just got another raise.”
“From your dad?” Carl asked.
“Go to hell. Yes, from my dad. It’s his company, dipshit. I’m not gonna do landscaping forever, so whatever. Might as well milk it.”
“I’m sure that’s what your dad said when he took over the biz for his paw-paw.”
“What stinks in here?” Andy asked suddenly.
Carl’s eyes bulged, and he quickly looked down at the floor. The socks. How did he forget the socks? He looked right at them earlier. He clumsily gathered the two forgotten pairs of dirty socks in his hands and stood to expel them from the room.
“Goddamn, Carl. Don’t you have a hamper? But I don’t think that was it. It smells like something else, worse. What the hell is that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Carl said, returning from the hallway. “So, how’s the wife and kids these days?”
“They’re good,” Andy said, almost questioning. “You should come by sometime; they’d love to see you again.”
“Maybe I will. I’d love to hang out with the wifey.”
“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten,” Andy scowled. He then shot up from the couch and went straight for the kitchen.
“Hey, get the hell out of there!” Carl yelled, smacking his shin hard against the coffee table as he tried to chase after him. “What are you doing? Get out!” There was a whimper in his voice as he tried to shout. He was now angry at both Andy and the sharp, tingling pain in his leg.
“The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen.”
“Christ! Don’t you ever clean this place?” Andy asked, suppressing an unwelcome laugh. Aside from the filthy and stinking dishes that were the cause of the horrid odour. The trash was nearly overflowing, and food crumbs were scattered about the sticky linoleum floor. An untied loaf of generic white bread lay resting on the counter next to a small silver can of something mysterious, slimy, and foul. “Were you eating when I got here? What in God’s shit is that stuff? It smells like crap.”
“Deviled ham. Did you eat already?” Carl asked. Now that they were actually standing in the room he had hoped to avoid, the crippling fear and embarrassment had nearly dissolved, leaving Carl now with only an obligation of hospitality.
“If that’s what you’re offering, then yes, I’ve already eaten. Why the hell are you eating cat food for dinner? Jesus, Carl.”
“It’s not cat food, it’s cheap, and it fills me up. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.”
“Speaking of filling up, you got quite the little gut on you, honey. Maybe lay off the devil’s ham for a while.”
Carl reflexively clutched at his belly and tugged the hem of his T-shirt downward as if the fat was spilling out offensively, needing to be covered at once.
“Why are you being so shitty?” Carl asked.
“I’m sorry, I know, that was a shitty thing to say.” Andy moved in and once again opened his arms and embraced his friend; his left ear pressed firmly against Carl’s right ear. Carl hesitated for a moment but eventually returned the gesture. They stood hugging in the kitchen for almost a full minute, breathing in the familiar scent of each other. The same scent each man had known for the past sixteen years. Riding in cars together, sitting in movie theatres together, lying naked in bed together for the first time at twenty-two.
But Andy’s nostrils flared at the stench of the salty cat-food slop in a can that sat on the counter within arm’s reach. He wanted Carl to live a different life, to eat different food. He wanted him to find a new job, a better job than that of a grocery store manager. He wanted Carl to live in a cleaner house, a bigger house. He wanted Carl to be proud of his life, to stop being so angry all the time. Having these things would help him; they would make Carl a happier person, a better person, Andy knew.
In high school, Carl had been an annoyance to everyone he came in contact with or even passed in the hall. He had a temper, a temper like his father had. He had a mouth on him. If something upset him, there was no forgetting it and moving on; he needed to ensure that every person in the immediate vicinity knew that he was upset and why. Students called him trailer trash, mostly because he indeed lived in a trailer, and they continued because he appeared to embrace the title. He didn’t live in a nice or well-kept trailer, but a dilapidated eyesore of a structure that was once baby blue but had since turned a heart-rending shade of gray. Andy only knew it had been blue because Carl’s alcoholic mother never shut the hell up about the state of the “mobile home.”
Andy visited Carl’s high school home only a handful of times. It was always a gross and uncomfortable mess, and he understood that Carl never wanted him there. Instead, they regularly lounged in the giant family room at Andy’s house: a two-story, five-bedroom, four-bathroom brick beauty, with bold black shutters and a huge purple front door. They ate greasy pizza in that room, played video games, and watched movies. Andy once let Carl pick the movie. He chose a dark film about a prostitute who murdered her clients for a living. As soon as Andy’s mother entered the kitchen, which was an open extension of the family room, a startlingly loud scene in which the main character was covered in blood and bludgeoning a man to death had begun. “That doesn’t sound like a very nice movie, boys,” Cynthia had said. Andy gave a side-glance toward Carl, who was trying to cover a subtle but warm—almost appreciative—smile with his hand. “Sorry, Cynthia,” Carl mumbled. Andy then shut the movie off.
The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen. It finally occurred to Carl that his dinner did, in fact look and smell like cat food, though he would still eat the remainder of the can the next day. Carl stared at Andy, and Andy stared at Carl, seemingly too long. Too long to stare at someone for nothing to happen afterward. Would something happen if they stared long enough? They had been here before. Things had happened afterward. Things they both wanted, had wanted likely since their junior year of high school, maybe before. If either man made a move, the other would give in without hesitation. If Andy decided to kiss Carl in that moment, Carl would open his mouth and welcome it. Kissing would then lead to caressing, which would lead to groping and then growing.
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But in the brief seconds Carl was considering these possibilities; he realized he couldn’t take Andy into his bedroom. The sheets had not been washed in weeks and smelled of sweat and dirt, Carl was sure. Not to mention the dirty socks and underwear that lay exposed in uncovered laundry baskets or on the floor. He suddenly felt ashamed. How had his life come to the point at which a person he wanted passionately was standing directly in front of him, in his house, their faces inches apart, and yet he couldn’t take this person to his bedroom because it was a pigsty. A place where pigs would thrive would squeal as they enthusiastically rolled around in the filth they love by nature.
What’s wrong with me? he thought.
“No, no. No, no, no. We’re not doing this again,” Andy said, providing some relief to Carl. “We can’t do this again.”
“I know, I know. You and that happy little family of yours,” Carl teased, waving his fingers in Andy’s face.
“We are happy,” Andy corrected with no smirk and no sympathetic eyes. Only an indication that a joke like that should never be made again.
Carl decided to move past the hiccup as if it had not occurred, moving back a few steps as a gesture. “So, do you want some coffee?” he asked.
“Sure, why not. We have some catching up to do anyway. And can you please put that goddamn food away? Maybe in the trash? Christ.”
Once back on the couch, still one cushion between them, they sipped black coffee in mismatched cups and began talking about their years in high school. Carl hated talking about high school, but Andy seemed to enjoy it for some reason. So, he indulged his friend.
“Did you hear about Jesse Benton having cancer?” Andy asked.
“Oh yeah? Hm.”
“That’s it? Hm?”
“What? I haven’t seen that guy since high school,” Carl said.
“Yeah, well, they say he’s dying,” Andy continued.
“They do, huh? Hm.”
“Now that’s shitty.”
“What’s shitty? I’m not happy he’s sick; I just don’t really know him. We went to high school together, and he was always a piece of shit. Calling me all sorts of names, making my life hell. I don’t want him to die, but I’m not gonna pretend like he’s someone special to me.” Carl took a breath and a sip of coffee. “What did he ever do for you, anyway?”
Andy closed his eyes and shook his head in exhaustion and frustration. Mostly frustration. He had always been frustrated by Carl. Carl was a very frustrating person. But still, Andy came around to visit, not too often lately, but he came around. Carl was a part of him, like a wrist or an ankle. A sprained ankle was bruised, swollen, and throbbing.
“While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless.”
“So what’s going on? Why are you living like this?” Andy asked.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Look at this place; it’s gross! It smells like crap, and you’re basically eating cat food. There’s dirt on everything. And I don’t even want to know what your bedroom is like right now.”
Carl knew this was somehow Andy’s method of inviting himself into the bedroom. But Carl would not give in so easily. He may have been feeling something in the kitchen only minutes ago, but not now. Definitely not now.
“Jesus! Who the hell do you think you are? Coming into my goddamn house, drinking my goddamn coffee, and telling me that my life isn’t good enough, for who, you? Why don’t you just get the hell out of here then?”
With that, Carl threw the rest of his coffee back in a single gulp, and the liquid was too hot for him to have done that. It burned his tongue and his throat. The inside of his mouth felt raw; it felt red. He tried not to reveal this with his face, but he winced involuntarily. Like a stupid little bitch, Jesse Benton would have said.
“I know, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m sure your room is fine. Why don’t we head back there?” Andy reached over and gently squeezed Carl’s knee.
“Holy Christ, are you kidding me? Why would I wanna do that? We’re not going anywhere. No one’s going in my room. We’re gonna sit right here.”
Andy sensed there was a pressing reason for Carl avoiding the bedroom. He began to wonder about the current state of the room, assuming it could be no better than what he had already seen throughout the rest of the house. Would it stink as bad? Would piss-stained underwear be lying about? Would there be hardened food stuck to plates piled on the nightstand? Pizza boxes? Empty cans of spreadable mystery meat? He didn’t want to know, but he also needed to know. He suddenly sprang to his feet and shot toward the hallway and to the bedroom, the last door on the right. Carl was coming after him, mumbling something or another, maybe shouting, but Andy didn’t care. He needed to see Carl’s life. He swung the door open.
“Get the hell out of my room, you bastard!” Carl was near hysterical in his defensiveness, a state in which Andy had seen him far too many times to be afflicted by it.
The room was not much unlike Andy had imagined. On the dreary gray bedsheets were large, darkened areas where Carl lay at night—oil from his body—especially on the pillowcases, from his greasy hair. Only one dirty plate sat on the nightstand, but three empty cans of pop—two Dr. Pepper and one Mountain Dew—accompanied it. The beige carpet was badly stained as if it had never been cleaned or even vacuumed. And the smell, oh god, the smell. It smelled of every smell of the human body you never want to smell, combined with many other unidentifiable smells.
But on the second dusty nightstand, he noticed a familiar photo, one he had not seen in many years and had nearly forgotten. It was of the two of them grinning with their cheeks pressed together at the reservoir about forty miles from where they lived, the summer before their senior year. They had driven there together in Andy’s red Pontiac Grand Am (purchased by his parents) and spent the Saturday fishing, eating potato chips and pork rinds, and drinking pop from a cooler. The sun was hot that day, and they both had taken their shirts off, a sight each pretended not to notice. Andy pulled Carl in to take an ironic photo together with a disposable camera. The sight of the picture inside the frame suddenly made Andy ill. While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless, seemingly wiped clean that day. What a thing to notice, and maybe it was his imagination, but he noticed it anyway. Why had he been so cruel to Carl? So Carl had a temper, so he talked too much, so he ate things no human should eat. So he hadn’t bothered to clean his house in what looked like a year. He was still Carl, the man who was once the boy that Andy loved when he was a boy. He supposed he still loved him, but a different love, a love tinged with sympathy. Or perhaps it was mostly sympathy Andy now felt. It is one thing to be an inconvenient teenager—people remain hopeful that one will “grow out of it”—but an inconvenient adult is just an inconvenience, a person who their closest friends avoid for months at a time.
“Carl…” Andy suddenly burst into a sob, uncontrollable. It was the state of the room; it was the photo; it was the thought of going home to his wife after being here. It was knowing that any foolish fantasies in which he had indulged were nothing more than fantasies.
“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god damnit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got.”“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god dammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. ”
“Andy, it’s not as bad as it looks! You just got me when I wasn’t expecting company. Come on; you know how stuff gets! It’s not easy keeping up with a house and all. It’s just a lot, and I get tired. I promise I’ll clean up tomorrow. I’ll invite you back over, and you’ll see. I’ll make dinner and everything.” Carl rested a hand on the back of Andy’s neck, hoping to comfort him some.
But Andy just stood hunched with a red face, crying like a child, tears flowing, nose running. He looked a mess, sloppy. He knew he looked sloppy, but he didn’t care. He needed to be comforted. He wanted Carl to take advantage of him right then, to grab his face and begin kissing him, the way he did that night when they were twenty-two. Instead, Carl came around in front of him and hugged him tightly. It shocked Andy, and he let out a soft whimper, about which he felt strangely embarrassed. It was a very different hug from the one in the kitchen only twenty minutes earlier. That hug was gentle, loving, and homosexual in every sense of the word. This new hug, this unfamiliar and frightening hug, was full of love, but it was not gentle, and it was not homosexual. Andy regretted his sobbing, regretted nearly everything he had said to Carl that night so far, but it was done. Everything Carl did now was a direct response to what Andy had said or done. It could not be changed.
The tears dried, and Andy blew his nose in the bathroom. He came back into the bedroom to find Carl sitting on the bed, his white-socked feet dangling a few inches from the floor.
“Can I lay with you for a bit?” Andy asked.
“You wanna lay here, on this bed? On my dirty ass sheets? You’re something else.” Carl tried to suppress a smile, but he failed.
“Move over. Lay with me.”
Carl did as he was told. Andy decided he didn’t mind resting his head on the oil-stained pillowcase. It smelled like a stale or even expired version of Carl, but still Carl. Andy could handle that for the next while.
“Do you remember the first time you wanted us to kiss?” Andy asked suddenly.
“No. I wish I did, but I don’t. I remember the first time I wanted us to do more than that, though. It was that day at the reservoir. You acted like you were taking that picture of us as a joke, but I knew it wasn’t. You wanted that picture because you didn’t know if anything would ever actually happen. I didn’t know either, but I knew I wanted it. I almost told you that day, but then I didn’t. I don’t know why. When you pulled my face against yours and smiled, that was when I knew. Then I guess it never really went away. Now I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me.”
In the sixteen years they had known each other, Andy had never heard Carl speak this way. Calm, somewhat elegant, and far away. He was always so present, alert, and pissed about something. In this change, Andy found hope. And horror.
As if he hadn’t heard a word Carl had just confessed, Andy said, “I’m really hungry.”
“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, goddammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. “
Andy had no intention of eating the contents of the can in the kitchen, so instead, he lay in the soiled sheets thinking of what to say next.
Stephen Phillip Lupkin is a writer and editor living in Phoenix, Arizona, with his two Shelties. He completed an internship with Arizona State University’s literary magazine, Superstition Review, during which he developed a strong passion for short fiction. When he is not working or reading a new book, he is busy crafting an original story of his own. You can find Stephen on Instagram @stephen_phillip_lupkin and Twitter @StephenPLupkin.