Michael J. Riser
José flicked the metal ring on his lighter six, seven times, sparking it into the dark. A couple of kids ran by like they were going to look into the window, but he stopped them, told them to go back to their mothers.
“But we wanna look!” they shouted.
José shook his head, flicked the lighter again. “No. Go home.”
They scampered away, oblivious to the house’s goings on. The music from his truck blocked some of the noise coming from inside.
He turned to Marcus. “You gonna take a turn?”
Marcus cupped his hand around his own cigarette and lit it, then shook his head. “Don’t think so. Not really in the mood. You?”
“Seems like it’s been a while since you gone in.”
“Yeah, I guess.” José shook his dying lighter sharply, then finally got his smoke lit. “Think I lost the taste for it, be honest with you.”
“So why you still come out?”
“Habit, maybe. I dunno.”
“Jus the ritual of it?”
José hadn’t given it much thought. He didn’t participate, didn’t even watch anymore. He just stood outside with a smoke like he’d finished his turn and was waiting out the evening, nodding to whoever limped out to their trucks or to stumble home.
The cigarette straightened and dropped as he puffed it between his lips. He lifted his chin toward Marcus. “So why you here if you ain’t goin in?”
“Nothin else to do.”
“Pssh.” José smiled and sloshed his head back and forth. “Pretty fuckin sad, us two. Friday night, and all we can do is stand outside this fuckin shack while they all havin fun inside.”
Marcus toed the dirt for a minute before he spoke again.
“Hey, can I ask you somethin?”
“You say ‘havin fun,’ but did you really ever find it fun?”
José’s head jerked involuntarily. “What makes you ask that?”
“What other reason is there for doin it?”
The air was still, and Marcus blew a perfect smoke ring toward his truck. “Dunno. What other reason is there for us standin here?”
José inhaled deeply and blew smoke back out through his nose. “Okay, let me ask you somethin then.”
“You don’t like it?”
Marcus shifted his weight. “Nah man, course I do.”
“You sure about that?”
Their eyes locked. Marcus shivered from the night air, but it was José who backed down first.
“Okay then,” he said, shrugging a little. “Just don’t wanna see nobody rock the boat is all.”
“Why? You said yourself you ain’t got a taste for it no more.”
“Yeah, but this’s the way it’s done in this neighborhood. The way it’s always been done. No good ever come from fools rockin the boat. We gotta respect the old ways, and to respect,“ he said with emphasis, pointing a finger, “is to observe.”
Marcus nodded slowly. “Right. Yeah.”
The two of them stood silently in the cold. The overgrown ivy around the house hung weirdly orange under the streetlights as the noise from the house began to swell. José punched the air lazily, as if underwater, and his tattoos expanded each time he flexed, their contortions dancing wickedly in the stray flashes of light that popped from the windows. For all his posturing, he couldn’t find a way to look better than uncomfortable.
Marcus shuffled from foot to foot. “Cold out tonight.”
The muffled sounds of a scream. Chanting that lulled and roared. The radio quieted, then David Lee Garza’s “Paloma Sin Nido” began to play.
“Oh shit, I love this song,” Marcus said. He was pale, and turned to walk toward the truck.
“Yeah, me too,” José said. “Turn that shit up.” He glanced back at the house as the incongruous form of an apparition—thin, tall, veil-draped, carrying something small and squirming in its bony hands—slid through the fog that crawled over the window glass.
He lit another cigarette.
Michael J. Riser is a working writer and editor from California. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Despumation, Sheepshead Review, and UNC Charlotte’s Sanskrit, in addition to Pantheon Magazine and Solarcide print anthologies. He lives near Chico with his wife, a rescued pit bull from Texas, and an especially mischievous Halloween cat. He can be found online at Bookruptcy.com.