* lines written in italics are taken from Charles Bukowski’s poem,“memory”
Gabey opens the door and says, “come in,” and I don’t know why I’m at her house because I thought we’d stopped talking in high school but she looks the same and we walk through a home she says is her own and trees grow through the roof and the floors are stacked between ladders and bats hang from the ceilings.
“We’re going to my room,” she says, and we make the climb up a ladder to a lofted bed and our knees touch and I think, this must be real.
“I’m going to read to you,” Gabey says, and she reaches above our heads for a green book and on the same shelf there’s half a mouse cage, brightly colored plastic, top pulled off, the pink base is filled with receipts. I can hear Gabey reading out loud next to me, feel our knees together, but I can’t stop looking at the open cage of receipts.
“I’ve memorized/ Chicago and cottage cheese, and the mouths of/ some of the ladies and the legs of/ some of the ladies/ I’ve known,” Gabey reads.
Above the rolls and layers of smooth paper, I can see tiny pink legs.
“—and the way the rain came down hard./ I’ve memorized the face of my father in his coffin,/ I’ve memorized all the cars I have driven—”
“I think your mouse is dead,” I say.
When I tell my mother that I’ve been keeping a gerbil in my room for two weeks, she spits her food out and cries.
“Rats in my house,” she sobs over Hamburger Helper.
“Gerbil,” I correct.
The next day I come home from school and my gerbil and his pink cage are gone and my mother is ordering take out.
“The usual?” she asks from the couch, phone held against one ear.
When I ask her what happened to my gerbil she says, “gerbils run away.”
“Cages don’t run away.”
“Ask your father; maybe he knows what happened.”
When I ask my father he says he didn’t know I even had a gerbil but that if he had known he would have set it loose because he doesn’t believe in pets.
In the kitchen I tell my mother that all I want is a gerbil, which is mostly a lie because really I want a car and a better grade in chemistry and a fake ID, but a gerbil pisses my mother off.
“People in hell want ice water,” she says and so that night at two in the morning I pour out all the booze. I watch the wines—vivid against the white ceramic of my shower—spin into each other before they sink down the drain. I fill the empty green bottles with cranberry and grape juice before stacking them back into the shoe rack.
A boy and I get drunk and take a bus to a PetSmart in Clackamas to look at the ferrets because we can’t decide if they are cute or ugly from the pictures online. But the PetSmart is out of ferrets so a woman with green hair unlocks the guinea pig tank for us, reaching into the brightly lit habitat to pull out a guinea pig with a running nose and pink-crusted eyes.
“He’s free,” says the woman. “He’s been sick so I dunno how long he’ll live, but he looks old, I think.”
“We could call him Dale,” the boy says, so we split the cost of food and hay and the store throws in a free chew toy.
On the bus ride home the boy puts our new guinea pig into the hood of his sweatshirt, and we cough every time the guinea pig squeals.
In my room we fill a laundry basket with a fleece blanket and set out a bowl of food. The boy sits on the edge of my bed and he says he has homework and I know this is a lie because we finished our homework together at the library but we were taking shots on the bus so I tell him I’m going to put my pajamas on and he looks for his shoes.
When I come back in my room after brushing my teeth, the boy is standing over our guinea pig and I think about what my mother would say if she knew I put a guinea pig in my laundry basket.
“Do you want to be with me?” I ask because I’m drunk and we have a guinea pig to think about now.
He’s quiet and so over my renovated laundry basket I ask him again, “do you want to be my boyfriend?” And beneath our standing bodies Dale chirps.
“Say something,” I say, giving the boy’s elbow a shake because it’s embarrassing to fight in front of the guinea pig. “Please just say something, okay?”
I wait out the silence longer than before. The boy is looking at Dale and Dale can’t look at the boy because his eyes are in a pile of hay and honestly I’m not convinced Dale isn’t blind and I can’t stop thinking that I’m going to need to find something else to put my dirty laundry in.
“You have to go,” I say.
Or maybe I say, “you should leave.”
Or maybe he says, “I can’t do this right now.”
But I know I tell him to get his coffee pot, and his Tale of Two Cities, and himself out of my room and as he gathers his things I think about Steve Martin gathering his ashtray and paddle game and lamp and I look at this boy holding his coffee pot and book and I think that this boy is better looking than Steve Martin and that I don’t really want a guinea pig.
I wake up in Bukowski’s bed and next to me is a wiry old man and the wiry old man is wearing the boy’s clothes and when he says, “fuck off,” he has the boy’s voice but his face is Bukowski’s.
I start to say, “Mr. Bukowski, sir, I think you’d like me because I like cats and I hate my mother and—”
But before I can finish, Bukowski says with breath that smells like how the breath of a man you’d imagine has been dead and underground for twenty-three years might smell, “you don’t know me and we wouldn’t have gotten along and really you only even dreamt of me because you like the sound of my name and I won’t say it again now so fuck off.”
And I want to argue but we both know Bukowski’s right so I get out of his bed and look for my pants because Bukowski’s bedroom is messy and I’m pretty sure this is a dream so maybe I never even wore pants.
Claire Stevens is an undergraduate student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she has been living and writing for the last three years. She has won an award in the Writer’s Digest Competition and published in Reed College student publications. She is currently working on a collection of short stories centering around the Beat Generation.