The Accident Victim
It was a Friday, and it was Halloween, and there had been spooky-themed drink specials at Ye Lucky Stoppe, our regular place. We were still plenty buzzed when we got to Lottie’s apartment, knocking into furniture and singing songs we had made up in Spanglish.
Her son Carlo was there, waiting to trick or treat. A neighbor picked him up after school. It was only supposed to be an hour that he stayed home alone.
He had the pieces to his costume laid out evenly on the couch: ace bandages, a crutch, a fake styrofoam cast, a tube of fake blood. By evenly I mean equidistant–the kid had an eye for detail. I’d been seeing Lottie for a month; the three of us had spent some time together, and I could already tell that Carlo was a smart little bastard.
The TV was on and he was eating miniature cheese crackers out of a box, rotating the orange squares in front of his face like they had to pass a test before he would pop the next one in his mouth. Lottie didn’t have much more than the couch and TV in her place yet, but it was clean, and the walls had just been painted. I had lost track after my third rum and Coke, wasn’t exactly seeing straight; the boy and his snacks floated in all that off-white space like a confusing modern art exhibit.
We walked single file behind the couch to get to the stairs.
“We’re going to trick or treat so hard, Carlo!” she sang, her voice ragged from alcohol and singing and laughing. She reached for the top of her son’s head, but she misjudged and ended up pushing down on the air.
Her face wrenched itself sideways then, like what just happened there? It occurred to me at that moment that I had been pushing the liquor a little hard. Lottie put one silencing finger over her lips, breathed deeply through her nose, shook her shoulders down and back, that ritual people do with their posture to prove they’re not wasted.
Carlo knew what was up. He slouched down into the couch until he had pretty much disappeared between the cushions. I swear he was trying not to blink, like he wanted to let the game show on television flood into him and fill him up.
I should have chimed in, something to the effect of “Don’t worry Bud! We’ll get tons of candy!” but I was halfway up the stairs, tugging Lottie up with me. Her brown hair flashed red and gold every time she bounced up a step.
She loved her boy more than anything, even though his dad was a fuck-up, the single most painful memory of her life, a three year stretch she kept calling–never in front of Carlo–The Failed Experiment.
The father was an intellectual, and the more times Lottie said that word the more I could tell it was supposed to mean unemployable, with a couple of barely-started degrees and no foreseeable prospects beyond substitute teaching. He had recently taken off for Kansas City, where he’d found a college that offered free tuition if you promised to teach overseas for a few years. “Overseas!” Lottie exclaimed, too shrill for her, practically shrieking it. Something would get in the way. Something ridiculous would happen. Mr. Intellectual wasn’t going anywhere.
When we came back down the stairs it was full-blown dark. Carlo hadn’t bothered turning on any lights, so we could only make him out in the blue flashes of the detective show he was watching.
We dressed him as The Accident Victim.
“Best costume ever!” Lottie had called out for the whole bar to hear, pumping her arms in a chick’s rendition of a touchdown dance. Everyone around us clapped and hooted. She explained the Accident Victim concept to anyone at Ye Lucky Stoppe who would listen. She hadn’t spent more than ten bucks on it. Carlo had been practicing every day with a crutch left over from his grandfather. Someone got inspired by the story of Carlo’s costume and bought another round.
We covered his head in bandages until only his face showed. We wrapped the fake cast on his forearm and looped it around his neck to form a sling. Carlo had big features and his joints were knots that pushed at his skin, so you could tell he still had lots of growing to do. Lottie kept tousling his hair and grabbing at his chin, like she was bringing him back to life with her touch. Her cheeks were still flushed a deep red. I wondered if heat was still pulsing off her body. I wondered how much a kid that age understood about what we had been up to.
Lottie squirted two fake-blood stains on the head dressing where The Accident Victim’s terrible wounds had bled through. I had to admit the costume was solid, for not being store-bought.
Carlo smirked a couple of times as we prepared him. That was how he always smiled, halfway only, like open happiness might set off an alarm. I handed him the crutch and gave him the double thumbs up. He pulled one foot up as if it had been crushed or maimed, the final touch.
“Royal will be our bodyguard, okay?” Lottie said as we stepped out on their front porch. Carlo nodded, intent on crutching realistically. It was impressive, how committed he was to the costume.
We stood in the tiny square of their front yard in a tight cluster, and for the first time I thought about what the three of us must look like from the outside. I imagined a moment at the happy end of a movie, the camera panning out, right before the credits rolled. From that angle no one would be able to tell I was the only brown person in the picture, hell maybe in all of South County, or that the boy didn’t look much like me. The audience would assume this was my son and this was my wife. We were a unit. I let that thought sit on me for a few minutes and it wasn’t as heavy as I had expected it to be. But I pushed it away, like Lottie and I had agreed all along.
“You have to understand, Senor Velazquez, I am not looking for father material,” Lottie had told me the first time we kissed for real. It struck me as early to say something like that. I could tell from the sharp thin line of her mouth, no pouting now, that she was telling the truth, there was only so far I was getting in.
“OK ma’am, I get it,” I laughed so she didn’t think I was nervous about all this commitment talk. “And ju arn’ using me for your Latin Lover, no, gringa?”
“Screw you!” she’d cried, her lips flaring up like I had really pissed her off. “Hell, my Spanish is better than yours.” She punched me on the shoulder for emphasis. Nothing serious, a playful tap, but the touch was enough to sizzle through my skin.
Lottie was sexy as hell and she was hard around the edges. She told me she had run hurdles in high school. Deep grooves appeared on her calves when she walked. She was etched like that in her hands too, where her bones and veins showed through like she was a potter or a carpenter instead of a teacher. Her lips were soft and full, though. She wore dark lipstick and she could pout like the pin-up girls my Dad had collected. I’d been seeing her for a couple of months, and I was hearing my Dad’s voice in my head more and more: “O lo tomas o lo dejas, mi hijo. Shit or get off the pot, boy.”
Their suburb was called Crest Ville or Crested Woods or some such rustic combination that was supposed to make you think of clearings full of co-habitating forest animals. It was just south of St. Louis, where Lottie taught Spanish in a public school. They’d only been there a couple of months, and the rent must have been a stretch, but the schools were supposed to be better, and this year Carlo would get to trick or treat. Their old apartment had been sandwiched between a strip mall and an auto parts warehouse. No one lived there that Lottie wanted her kid taking candy from.
“Where are all the other kids?” Carlo asked once we made it to the sidewalk. His voice hopped up on each of the last syllables, and if he kept talking he was going to end up either crying or yelling. The kid had a point–no one else was moving out there that we could see. It didn’t look like any sort of Halloween you’d see on TV.
“No, no, no, Hon!” Lottie muttered, the exact same wrinkle of panic–it must have been a family trait–in her voice. She scanned up and down her block like we’d just crash-landed on an alien planet where it would be hard to survive, where there might not even be water. “There!” she pointed down the street, “Some lights are on!”
On Lottie’s side of the street, the tall narrow townhomes were lined up tightly and shared front yards and driveways. Across the street was all ranch houses, yellow and red brick rectangles extending farther than I could see. We crossed the street and worked our way over to a cluster of houses with the porch lights on.
“What do I say?” Carlo asked when we got there.
“When they come to the door, you just say trick or treat!” she told him, breathless with relief. “Smile big!”
In the stripes of lamplight, it looked like Lottie’s cheeks were straining extra hard to lift the rest of her up. Her lips, her chin. Even on her beautiful face, it was clownish.
“Hey man,” I said, chucking him on his fake hurt arm like he was about to step up to bat, “if those suckers look at you funny, say ‘Check me out! I was in a terrible accident!’ and make some moans.” I demonstrated a noise for him that was supposed to sound like someone in awful pain. It echoed on the empty block, bouncing back to us more like a growl.
Lottie held my hand while we waited on the sidewalk. We watched Carlo while he rang the doorbell twice. The bandaged parts of him glowed yellow-white in the uneven dark of their street. Eventually an older guy answered the door. I couldn’t make out much of what went on between them, but I could see that he had one of those steeply-angled buzz cuts you get if you used to be in the military. This was a guy who mowed the lawn in his undershirt and dress socks. He talked down his nose to Carlo the whole time, the way I remembered teachers talking to me. Way longer than you would ever need to talk to a trick-or-treater.
Carlo crutched back slowly, still holding up that one foot. It was his best Accident Victim performance yet. His shoulders and pretty much all of him was really hanging on that crutch.
“That man said trick or treating only goes until six in this . . . mun-ic-i-pal-ity.” Carlo nailed this strange new word. He was going to be a fucking genius in school.
Lottie and I both did that thing where you check your wrists and then pat at your pockets to see if you have a watch.
“It’s almost eight o’ clock now,” Carlo said. “He showed me.”
Lottie dropped to one knee in front of Carlo. She might have been asking for a handout. Her fingertips grazed the sidewalk, I think to balance herself. She didn’t say anything, just darted her eyes around Carlo’s face, figuring out I assume what you are supposed to do when your kid is hurt and you are the cause.
“He gave me something anyway, ” Carlo continued, pointing into his bag. “Dried apricot he makes in the backyard.” I think maybe Carlo wanted us to look in the bag, but there was no way I was looking. I didn’t want to know what those dried apricots looked like. Probably the sort of thing you never forget.
The buzz and glow from the drinks and from being in bed with Lottie had leaked out of me by then. My lips and tongue were dry, and I knew a hangover was on the way. It became hard to look at Lottie for long. She was getting these tiny spasms, like she was holding a violent impulse inside her. Screaming or hitting herself for instance.
At the second house, we walked him all the way up to the front step. The old woman who answered the door knew, with one quick sweep, everything there was to know about the three of us, and what had really happened to the Accident Victim. She was really terribly sorry, she said, her lips pursed so tight you could tell she was fighting the urge to list every single item about us that made her sad. She was out of candy, she told Carlo, spreading her arms wide, her undulating wingspan encompassing the moral of this particular situation.
Lottie was able to hold it together until we made the sidewalk, and then she started to cry. She swiped at her tears like they were swarming bugs. She did not want them getting out. Carlo reached out his hand, the one that wasn’t in a cast, and rested it on his mother; the strength of her sobs made his long thin arm move up and down like a jump rope. He put together one of his smirks for me, shrugged something like “What you gonna do?” No one had taught him how to get pissed at the world yet–probably specifically a Dad job–but he knew how to build up a wall when bad shit went down.
We took him to the Denny’s at the corner he was always asking about, and while the two of them got a table, I went to the liquor store across the parking lot. I bought every kind of candy they had, and all the Beer Nuts, at least a dozen bags total. The liquor store clerk was Chinese, or from somewhere else in that part of the world. He kept looking back and forth between me and the stack of snacks. I could tell he wanted to say something, but either his English wasn’t good enough or he could read it on my face: don’t ask.
Carlo kept his costume together, even though it must have been hard sliding into that vinyl booth. Lottie was next to him, and the Denny’s lights were not doing wonderful things concerning her skin or her hair or her makeup. All her strict edges were amplified, like she was a line drawing in a coloring book, shaded brown in a couple of places but mostly left blank. I slid in across from them and tried to catch her eyes, but she wasn’t having it.
Carlo had ordered the short stack of pancakes, and as soon as they came, I began pulling bags of candy out of my lap, placing them one at a time on the sticky formica tabletop. I produced them like rabbits out of a magic hat. Carlo sized them up one at a time, evaluating exactly what he was going to get when he opened up each bag, shoving them around until they were stacked around his plate, sandbags for a flood. After the third or fourth bag, he began to relax. He tore into those pancakes. When I produced a supersize bag of licorice, bigger than anything he would ever get trick or treating, he rolled it around in his palm, savoring its weight, and I felt a little less shitty about the entire situation.
But Lottie was gone to me, I could tell, and this was going to be my last time with her or her son. Every time I slapped a bag of candy on the table, she flinched like something had hit her in the face.
Colby Vargas writes short stories and, of course, is working on a novel THAT IS GOING TO CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT THE NARRATIVE FORM. He lives in the Chicagoland area with his wife and one daughter who hasn’t flow the coop yet. His work has been most recently published in The Louisville Review, Crux Literary Magazine, and Aji Magazine.