Justin Lawrence Daugherty



I tell Layla, my nine-year-old sister, to go to the end of the aisle, open a box of condoms (which I tell her are balloons), and put them in her pockets. Her clueless eyes widen. She sticks the rest of her chocolate bar in her mouth and drops the wrapper. I flick her curly, crimson hair. We play this game sometimes. I tell her to steal something and she does it and I pretend it’s okay. This way, if she gets caught, no skin off my dick. If I had one.

Layla comes back with condoms stuffed in each of her tiny pockets. We pass a lobster tank. Layla presses her hand against the glass. She leaves a chocolate handprint. Lobsters are piled on one another.

Why are they crawling on each other? Layla asks. She rises on her tip-toes and licks the chocolate off the tank.

They’re all trying to get to the bottom, I say. If one gets to the bottom and is the last one left in the tank, she gets to be the lobster queen.

But what happens to the others, Regina? Layla asks.

They don’t get shit. They get boiled alive and covered in butter and garlic.

Layla cries.

The world just ain’t fair, I say. But, don’t worry, sis. She doesn’t get to stay the queen for long. It’s just a temporary position.

Pop asks where we been when we walk in the door. I shrug, my hand in my pocket covering the condoms as if they were fragile baby birds, and sit down on the couch. Stuffing sticks out, like cauliflower, here and there. I tug and tug at it, pulling away its insides.

Stop that, Pop says. Pagans cost money, he says.

Pop suffered a traumatic brain injury while over in Iraq six years ago and now he loses his words. Not forgets them, but actually loses them, never to return. One by one, they drop out of his brain. Sometimes the words that come out just aren’t right, but he tries. He studies the dictionary constantly. He figures if he keeps learning new words, they’ll replace the lost ones. I shove the stuffing back in the opened fabric, a much harder task than pulling it out. Like it’s a sponge, turgid with water that needs to spill out.

What the clambake? Pop asks.

Layla starts galloping around the room on an imaginary horse, yelling clambake clambake clambake.

Rufus is coming over, I tell Pop. We’re probably going to have sex, just so you know.

I want to be honest with him about everything. I want to tell Pop that I think about becoming an escort someday more than I think about becoming a dentist. That I sometimes meet older men at hotels and let them have their way and I call them Daddy.

Layla starts drawing on the wall in fuchsia crayon.

I want to tell Pop about the caterpillar scar on the inside of my left thigh, how I wish Mom had never gotten pregnant and squeezed out Layla, about how I’d stab Jesus in the stomach if he showed up on our doorstep, arms open, offering redemption.

Pop shakes his head. He’s trying to find the words. He wants to save me, I know. He opens the dictionary. Layla draws a fuchsia lobster claw as a stick figure connected to a big blob of red, the body. She takes out a banana-yellow and draws a crown on the head, antennae coming out through the top.

Pop opens my bedroom door and Rufus walks in, holding a small box. He throws it on the bed. The box isn’t wrapped and there’s no bow. Open it, Rufus says.

I shoo Pop away, who turns and closes the door on his way out. Rufus drops his pants before I even pick up the gift. Talk dirty to me so I can be ready when you’re done, he says. I scoop the condoms out of my pockets and spread them on the bed like bread crumbs for pigeons.

Rufus strokes himself but nothing happens. In the meantime, I open the box. There are at least twenty postcards inside, each with a picture of some distant place. Alaska, Costa Rica, Albany, the Philippines.

Rufus starts undoing my pants, tugging, pulling. I want him to slap me, to treat me like the women he cheats on me with, to not be nice so all of this will be forgettable. Pick a place, he says. He strokes and strokes, trying to start a fire. Pick a place and we’ll go and never come back and fuck your dad and mom and mine and all the people we know.

The lobster at the bottom of the tank thinks that maybe she’ll live forever, I say.

Rufus twists his mouth up, says Huh? He puts two fingers between my legs to see if I’m ready to go. C’mon and help me out, Regina, help me help me help me, he says.

When she thinks maybe she doesn’t have to fight so hard anymore, that’s when she’s most in danger, I say.

After he gets hard, Rufus climbs on top of me and sticks it in, all action, no fluff. He’s got a bad heart and his lungs are already cigarette-burned, so he sucks at the air with each thrust, trying just to make it one more time. I close my eyes and think of a time when my father’s lost all of his words, every single one, a time when I will tell him all of the things I’ve never told him and he will open his mouth to say something, though nothing will spill out but air, and he will listen, he will listen.


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