The Ashtray by Benjamin Roberts

Verity. She appeared before us in the City Weekly newspaper, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a bathtub, a child and yet a mummy—swaddled in soggy printers ink one wet September day like the day when the world came to know the name of heroin. The coffee was brewing. Brigham and I agreed wordlessly,

Verity was just about the nicest thing a guy could imagine seeing first thing in the morning. Then in silence we prepped the kitchen, listening to Nilsson Schmilsson because we always listened to that album when it rained. Later, we leavened the dough, smoking grass in the basement and drinking coffee at the decoupage counter, and we waited as though weighted down by the enormity of time on the punch clock.

Waitresses arrived—Ty last among them, late as always as though daring me—trailing tampons and birth control pills and pills for attention deficit. Each girl in turn bent her backside to the air and stuffed her purse under the counter by the spools of credit card receipt. Brigham left the City Weekly opened to Verity—she bled a tattoo of a blue iris above her white breast, right resting place of a young girl’s hand saluting the flag, an ad for an ink parlor on State Street—until Ty, cursing the customer-killing rain, turned the Weekly to the crossword and chewed her pen to shame.

Brigham pushed the back door open as I started the mixer to kneading the leavened dough. I joined him, smoking. My hands smelled of onion and soap. The rain fell on the pavement, which in turn offered odors like curses, a thick whore’s perfume of grease and tight, unwashed flesh. Brigham and I hadn’t said one word all morning. Someone dragged up Wild Horses on the juke box, but the song had been played for every grain of sand on the fetid shore of the Salt Lake, and so sounded like nothing so much as another reason to end it all.

I have always hated the rain. Brigham smirked in his way, a knowing smile, cigarette clinging to his thin lips in desperation, dangling down to the stubble on his chin.

“You’ve got sleep in your eyes.”

I shrugged, or maybe pushed a palm through my unwashed hair, but I did not pick the sleep from my eyes. Like most everything Brigham said, his words were meant as both a piece of advice and a cutting jab.

“I just thought someone should tell you.” He flicked his cigarette into a puddle, oiled like the rainbow, and the red ember hissed.

“The rest of that joint from last night is in the ashtray,” he said, and then he stepped away.

As I smoked onward, Brigham walked across the large kitchen to the counter. Ty breezed by with an order for a calzone and a salad. I didn’t want to talk to her, not that day. Not ever. She seemed to me just as meaningless and reprehensible as food.

Eating, it must be understood, is a savage ritual to me. A pagan rite, filled with lust and remorse, taken for granted in whatever meager blessing it might offer. Food resulted in an afterbirth of plastic garbage bags I had to haul leaking to the pitiful dumpster hidden away in the back of the café like the bastard child of an old tragic play.

I still felt my heart pulled toward Ty. Her sad eyes. Her peasant breasts. The small birthmark on her inner thigh above her left knee. I sometimes told myself I was the only one who had seen that tender mark. I was the only one who had kissed that tender mark.

But, I was the mark. Ty was as true as a cat.

Back by the walk-in freezer, the mixer began banging, and I cut the motor to clean the dough from the kneading hook, and this day would have been just as pitifully the same as any other if I had not, upon starting the mixer back up and stepping around the corner to the front counter, seen Verity standing there as though she had sprung from the City Weekly. She was enshrined then in a black hoodie unzipped halfway and shirtless. Her legs painted in faded blue jeans. She conspired with Brigham as Ty glared at her.

Verity’s hoodie was rain spattered and wet-stretched to the verge of her small breasts. The iris tattoo on her white breast seemed to pulse and glow with a life all its own, as she twisted and stretched. Just as comfortable in her skin as a dolphin. Brigham spoke in a hushed tone, and my first impression of conspiracy lingered. I backed away toward the mixer, picking at the sleep in my eyes.

There was a mirror shard glued to the broom closet door, and this I surveyed: my coffee-stained teeth, the bruised baggage of my eyes, my greasy brown hair splayed-out like road kill. I looked like a regular at the blood bank.

“Knock ‘em dead killer,” I think I muttered. And, I’m sure I did the click-click-shoot-you-with-my-handgun thing I learned from Deadbeat Dad; a habit I have been striving to break, and yet cannot.

“What was your name?” Brigham asked the girl with the tattoo, for we did not then know her as Verity.

She waved the question off, “Mostly diet and then the last little bit regular and not too much ice.” She fluttered her lashes.

Watching her over his shoulder as he walked, Brigham tripped-up on the rack of prepped stacks of pizza pans.

“How is that calzone?” Ty asked. The flash of cattish dominion in her eyes.

I shrugged—a trade-mark of my style, you might notice, I shrug a lot—and stepped toward the counter, thinking I should check the paper in the credit card machine. We were always running out of paper in the credit card machine. Brigham returned with the soda.

“Perfect.” The straw kissed Verity’s lips. The hollows of her cheeks. The iris grew on her exposed white skin. “Do you have a cigarette?”

For the first time in months, there was plenty of paper in the credit card machine, but Brigham was already escorting Verity through the kitchen to the back door. I caught the faintest hint of her scent as she passed—a fragrance of oranges and cigarettes and rain. I told myself, it could have just as easily been me. If I had only returned first from smoking… If I hadn’t fixed the mixer… It could have been me, and now I’m so glad it wasn’t.

“Would you please check that calzone?” Ty had said.

I shuffled toward the oven with the weight of the soggy world resting on the lower portion of my thoracic spine.

“What?” Ty laughed at me. Women are often laughing at me. “You’re not speaking to me now?”

The calzone was not done. I split the dough in half with the pizza cutter and pushed the pan to the back of the oven.

“No.” With practiced nonchalance I closed the oven door. “I’m not speaking to you.”

Ty sniffed her pen, studying the crossword as though crouching. Leonine. The cusp of cleavage so artfully cusping the dividends for the bended offering of food. I reached for my bottle of antacid by the coffee pot. Empty. I shook the dust into my mouth and drank directly from the luke-warm carafe.

“Hey,” she looked up from the crossword, “What’s a five letter word for a small dick?”

It begins, I thought. It begins. I smiled and extended my hands imploringly. “Have you tried ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’ yet?”

Smoking cigarettes out the back door on a rainy September day. This was how Brigham scored a date with Verity. Yes, I did verify the spelling of her name. She was from Corinne or something. I mean that’s what Brigham said when he brought her back to the apartment that night. Like it explained everything.

Anyways, he hired her. That’s how they started going out. He hired Verity, and she worked that rainy shift with Brigham pouring all his attention into showing her how to roll the dough and prep the pans with flour, leaving me the real work of the lunch rush. And, I’m sure it was all very metaphorically romantic, like some movie about a widower French baker and the runaway who comes in from the cold, but I felt as terrible as Ivan, even after the antacid, which I bought at a premium from the 7-11 across the street.

After my shift, I crossed the street for a tall boy and that seemed to settle the internal dialogue. Also, I told the Egyptian-looking guy behind the counter that someone had stuck roses in all his crack pipes. He didn’t laugh. He told me to get out. I, at least, thought it was funny, and I suppose, as morbid as that may be, it buoyed my spirits a little to think about how I could be worse off.

Arriving at the apartment, I saw the ashtray, and picking it up I carried it to the trashcan. I poured the ashes out, and then dropped the ashtray in as well. I opened another beer and remembered the remains of a joint had been in the ashtray.

The joint was a little wet from an apple core, but it took flame. Smoking, I imagined the myriad ways I have resigned myself to the fate of my addictions and appetites and retrieved the ashtray as well.

It was, after all, the only ashtray we had. Orange. Some kind of plastic/fiberglass blend from the Fifties or Sixties. As teenagers, Brigham and I had found it while breaking into an abandoned building west of the tracks in Ogden. We had discovered the ashtray—perfectly clean setting on a workbench in a machine room on the roof—and carried it home. Well, Brigham brought it to his house first because he saw it first, and then we traded the ashtray back and forth every week or so.

Of course, co-owning an ashtray convinced us both to start smoking. And, grass was easier to buy than cigarettes when we were fifteen. We have since filled and emptied that pathetic ashtray countless times. And, I suppose the trajectories of our lives have been determined in part by an old ashtray.

After high school, we both failed out of Weber State College by missing too many classes, trying to make our band work. The band didn’t work. We were left feeling defeated in our dreams. Childish and peevish like old men. We worked together at the pizza café, sharing living space and dishes and all the sordid details of our meager existences. Except for Verity and her appetites.

I’m jumping forward too much.

I snubbed the joint out and ate the remainder, washing it down with urinous pilsner. I keep on hoping that I’m going somewhere, but I know I’m not. I half-watched Godzilla verses Mecha-Godzilla, reading a critique of post-modern literature in Playboy Magazine and wishing I, like Godzilla, could mutate into a giant monster and crush civilization in general and Salt Lake City in particular into singing electric dust.

And, I thought about Deadbeat Dad, sitting on the sofa. Well… not really sitting so much as lying…. Or is it laying… Which one does a dead man do? Lie or lay?

OD’ing. If that’s a word. And, I was what? Six? Seven?

Old Deadbeat Dad laying on the sofa. It begins.

I say that a lot. “It begins.” Because I watched Bela Lugosi in Swamp Monster too much. And, I suppose because “It’s Alive” was cliché material after Frankenstein. I don’t know.

It begins—like now you’ve learned you need to hide your piggy bank from Deadbeat Dad. Or, it begins, Deadbeat Dad is drunk and he thinks he’s Theloneus Monk with your tiny electronic keyboard from Sub-for-Santa. Or, Cortez with your clothes and towel after the shower, and you running naked and wet through the freezing apartment because he blew the gas bill on pain pills. Or, who knows?

When Brigham and I found the ashtray, I felt like I had a mission. I felt like Bela Lugosi in the movies. I would say to myself, “It begins,” knowing I had to work to thwart its continuance. Visa vi, Deadbeat Dad never got the ashtray. He never even knew about the ashtray. And, for that I was proud. I guess.

But, I’m going to skip ahead about three months because the next part was kind of boring and melodramatic. Just watch Sid and Nancy, and tell me it’s not boring. Basically, Brigham hooked-up with Verity, and pretty soon he was hooked on heroin as well. Then the apartment was more of a flop house than a place to live. Furthermore, there was, is, and always will be something profoundly unsexy about watching a girl shoot up. I bought a pad lock for my door.

Then one December night, Brigham was convinced I could pay him forty dollars for an hour with Verity. He was playing Super Mario Brothers and drifting in and out of consciousness. Glazed eyes. He was only thinking in terms of balloons. He was only thinking about how they could both be fixed for two days with forty dollars. Verity was passed-out on the bed surrounded by candles, but neither of them seemed human to me anymore.

Like an old movie where aliens take over people’s bodies and slowly conquer the world, Verity seemed alien, laying there on Brigham’s bed. Set down by heroin. I took off my socks, and my shoes. I folded my socks and set them on my shoes, nice and neat. Then I sat on a cluttered and broken recliner and smoked a cigarette and watched Verity sleeping.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was playing because it was the only album Brigham and I could agree on anymore. I looked at Verity and felt like I had never sinned in my life. I finished the cigarette, watching her breasts rise and fall as she breathed. She seemed blue, as though something had wrapped itself around her caviling heart and was slowly strangling the blood out. I put the cigarette out in the ashtray and put my socks back on and my shoes. I gave Brigham the forty dollars and, packing a canvas duffle bag, left to stay the night at Ty’s because—as heartless as she was—she had to let me sleep on her couch if I walked over there. It was beginning to snow.

Ty was by herself. Her roommate was out Christmas shopping with the fiancé, and Ty was between lovers. I told her I just needed a couch for the night.

She didn’t have much to drink, and I had taken the remains of the whiskey in my overnight bag. We mixed the whiskey with water and ice, and Ty had one of those plastic lemons with lemon juice. She spritzed her drink and mine, and we sat at the kitchen table talking about why we weren’t going to sleep together. Then we went to bed.

Long after the lights were out, I lie next to Ty. The full moon filled in the cracks of the Venetian blinds, spilling recondite stripes across her room. Obscured by the sleep of the world—that ape of death—the moon wandered still, filling each window in turn with her gentle eye.

I took the ashtray from my overnight bag, turned it around and around like a flying saucer diving across the surface of the moon, and returned it to the canvas bag, drawing the brass zipper across stripes of moonlight.

I watched Ty sleeping. The placid expression of her dream-forgotten face. She turned to her side with a sound like a small animal. I closed my eyes on Ty and Brigham and Verity and my memories of my father and exhaled into my dreams, quieting my lonely heart by telling myself over and over, we are redeemed by sleep, until I was tired enough to believe my own lie and slipped through the theater curtains to the other side.

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About the Author:

Squandering a decade in college, Ben Roberts received dozens of parking tickets. This experience taught Ben the self is an illusion (even if the parking tickets are real). He now writes stories in which existence is a directionless joke. He has published in The Coe Review and in Quarterly West.

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