carl fuerst

inhaler

     It started at 3pm at Holy Harvest Food & Drug. I reached into the cooler for a Lunchable and he
stepped behind me, rested his hand on my hip, snaked his arm around my waist, and snatched a pack of
hot dogs from the shelf.


     His hand sailed over my ribs as he withdrew.


     Loose wisps of hair ringed his spotted scalp. Mats of hair covered his forearms and the backs of
his hands. Tufts of it sprouted from the button-holes of his golf shirt, curling toward me like beckoning
fingers.


     His wedding band shimmered beneath the store's florescent lights.


     He was not a stranger. I drove past his landscaping company all the time. I often saw him
among the hills of red, white, and black gravel. Sometimes he was polishing a boat, or sitting on an
upside down bucket, holding court for a half-circle of shirtless young men. We would sometimes make
eye contact and wave.


     And if that wasn’t enough, we were the same age. We would have been in the same class if I
hadn’t been held back so many times. During our childhood, his little brother and I had been friends,
and sometimes he tagged along. The three of us took karate lessons at the park district. We wore each
other’s friendship bracelets. The three of us played Smear the Queer in the dry retention pond behind
the IGA. Our families attended the same small church and, one spring, when we were very young, he
and his little brother and I shared a scene in the church Easter pageant; we played the angels who rolled
away the stone.


     On the evening it started, in Holy Harvest’s poorly lit parking lot, I was thinking about rolling
away that stone and how strong and important that made me feel when he reappeared and offered to
help load groceries into my pickup. As he hoisted bags from the cart to the truck, he never stopped
talking.


     “How’s your brother?” I asked.


     “Fuck if I know,” he said. “He’s probably dead.”


     His sideburns were straight from an old advertisement for men's cologne. His knuckles were
scuffed, and the skin on his wrists was red and peeling.

 

     “I hope not,” I said.
 

     “I bet you do,” he said.
 

     When he said something about a Halloween party, I said sure, even though it wasn’t Halloween.
 

     Later that week, he arrived at my apartment at the agreed-upon time. He was wearing a pirate
costume. I was dressed as a pig. Pink one-piece pajamas, pink vinyl gloves, and a snout attached to my
face by a tight elastic strap.

 

     In hindsight, my choice of costume was a mistake.
 

     The party was in an out-of-business video store. We entered through the back and he told me to
keep quiet and stay away from windows. The only other attendees were two teenage boys with shaved
heads. They weren't wearing costumes. He and his two friends sprayed Scotch Gard into paper bags
and inhaled the fumes while I used my keychain flashlight to read the backs of old VHS cassette-cases
on the shelves.

 

     He eventually offered me a can of compressed air, an item intended for blowing dust from
between the keys of computer keyboards. I tucked its slender nozzle between my lips, pressed the
button, inhaled. We passed the can back and forth and, when it was empty, we recreated the embrace
we shared at the dairy cooler a week before.

     For so many years, I'd wondered what a man's mouth tasted like.
 

     It was with some disappointment that I learned it tasted exactly like my own.
 

     We tried fucking in the store but had no success; we were too intoxicated and the teenaged boys
were not polite. So I got dressed and walked myself home. It was still early in the evening and there
were lots of people going by and cars on the streets and everyone looked at me funny and I thought this
was because they could tell I was high and in love until I realized it was actually because I was still
wearing that pig costume and it was February.

 

     The next morning, I woke up late and rushed into the office without shaving, only realizing later
that my face was still smudged with the black marker he'd used to draw his pirate's beard.

 

     A few weeks later, as I left work on a Friday afternoon, he pulled up in a convertible and told
me to get in.

 

     We drove in silence for nearly an hour.
 

     “This is my wife’s car,” he finally said.
 

     A pack of his wife’s cigarettes were in the cup holder. A bag of bottles was in the back seat. A
Yankee Candle air freshener dangled from the rear view, along with a prayer card with an image of the
Virgin Mary cradling what looked to be an adult Jesus shrunk to baby-size. Beneath the image was the
phrase “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”

 

     I put one of his wife’s cigarettes in my mouth.
 

     “My wife doesn’t smoke in the car,” he said.
 

     I replaced the cigarette in the pack.
 

     It was dark when he parked the card at the side of the road. We were in the middle of a forest.
We followed a trail that led through thick woods and into a clearing where a small riot of young people
danced around a bonfire. As my eyes adjusted, I realized we were on the front lawn of someone’s nice
cabin.


     The cabin’s door had been kicked in. What we were burning was the furniture they’d dragged
outside.

 

     “Whose house is this?” I asked.
 

     “A friend’s,” he said.
 

     I watched shadows dance across faces.
 

     “Who are these high school kids?” I asked.
 

     “Nobody here goes to high school,” he said.
 

     He told me to go back to his car and retrieve the bag of bottles. I did so, and by the time I
returned, most of the crowd had left. When I reached the fire’s light, my boyfriend thanked me for
getting the bottles and guided me inside the cabin, where we fucked on the bare floor of an empty
bedroom while the owners’ Labrador howled from behind the laundry room’s locked door.

 

     For our third date, he introduced me to his mother.
 

     We huffed Goo B Gone the whole way to the nursing home, and our hams were pretty glazed
when we got to the front desk. The nurse that greeted us didn’t address the issue directly, but her body
language made it clear she knew the score.

 

     My boyfriend’s mom sat on a padded bench in a hallway. She turned a Snoopy Christmas
ornament in her hands. She poked it with her claw-like fingers, as if inspecting it for tumors.

 

     We dragged two metal folding chairs within a few feet of her and sat down.
 

     “Ma,” said my boyfriend.
 

     She handed him the doll. When he took it, she cackled as if it was his mind unravelling.
 

     “Are you Santa Claus?” she asked me, referring, perhaps, to my five o’ clock shadow, or my
girth.

 

     “My feet fell off,” she laughed. And then, in earnest, “Screw them back on.”
 

     Her body was a bat’s wing stretched over a spotlight; every bone was visible; every vein

accounted for. Her shrunken head was dwarfed beneath a crooked, overlarge wig. She could’ve been on
display in a medical museum.

 

     My boyfriend said we should see his mom’s room, but the nurse who’d been pretending to mop
the floor put his huge hand against my boyfriend’s chest and said we both needed to stay in the public
areas during this visit. My boyfriend figured the staff didn’t want us searching his mom’s sleeping
quarters for meds. Frustrated, he stormed off to the men’s room, where, a few minutes later, a security
guard found him rummaging through the garbage can for pills.

 

     On the way home, we parked briefly behind an out-of-business gas station, but he was too upset
for romance.

 

     That night, I spent nearly an hour in the tub, and, when I got out, my body looked shrunken,
wrinkled, and ruined. I stood in front of the mirror, spat out my partials, and sucked in my cheeks. I
wanted so badly to be like my boyfriend’s mother, draped in a soft veil of age and infirmity. To be fed
and watered like a fragile plant. What pathetic stuffed animal would I hold on my withered lap? What
spittle-laced curses would I mutter under my breath?

 

     As I fell, the back of my head hit the corner of the vanity. I woke in a sticky puddle and walked
to the emergency room for stitches.

 

     The nurses at the hospital said I’d lost consciousness because of the petroleum distillates in the
Goo B Gone, but I knew the true diagnosis: I’d fainted from pure joy.

 

                                                                                                   ***

     At the end of November, near midnight, I waited for my boyfriend in my truck, which was
parked in front of St. Luci's Hospice Supply, as we had arranged.

 

     His wife opened the passenger-side door and slid into the seat next to mine.
 

     “I am so sorry,” she whispered. “He's not the person you think he is.”
 

     I gripped the steering wheel. I stared into the fog on my windshield.

     I said yes, sure, I know.


     She wore a red sweatshirt with a picture of a beagle on it. She wore a thin gold chain with a
cross-shaped pendant. She said she needed to be sure that I did not have any questions about why my
relationship with her husband was ending. To make sure I knew that the ending was absolute and
complete.

 

     I said that's right, of course.
 

     She said she would pray for me.
 

     I said thank you.
 

     She smiled. “Please stay away from my family,” she said. Her voice shook as she said it.
 

     What was she so nervous about?
 

     I stared out the windshield as she drove away.

6 February, 2021

Carl Fuerst is a writing teacher who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including F(r)iction, Entropy, and Necessary Fiction.