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SEPTEMBER 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 9



Tension | Jessica Mertz


Etude | Vasilis Afxentiou

STEVE MUESKE, an MFA candidate at Hamline University, where he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in English and Philosophy, has published prose and poetry in various online and print journals, including Satire, Wisconsin Review,, SalonDAarte, and Poetry Motel. Beginning in August, Mueske will be a contributing editor for Salon DAarte. A contributing writer for Renaissance Online, he lives in Burnsville, Minnesota, with his wife and two daughters.


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That evening, we played smear the queer. I pounded a few of the little shavers, and they quit early and started playing tag or something. Mick and Dennis were back from the other farms, hanging out, just watching and saying stuff, poking fun, being hard asses, that sort of thing. I didn't mind, though; they'd probably have smeared me into a grease spot if they had played. There was this one kid with a bandana on his head, standing near Mick. His name was Keith or Ken - something with a K anyway. He had some kind of disease or something and we were supposed to let him play, but he started crying the first time someone nailed him (he didn't have enough brains to know not to wait for the ball to drop into his arms), so we told him he had to watch. I told him he could play hide and seek with the little kids if he wanted to, but he said he didn't want to, and so I asked if he would like to play snake bite, and he asked what it was and I showed him. Real good, too. I cranked both hands as hard as I could. His eyes got all watery, and he started to cry again. He was a wuss, too. Sometimes I think the whole world is full little wussies.

Most of the men were in the garage playing five card stud - which mostly meant that while the women were inside sewing and talking about relation down to the third cousin and expostulating on the goodness of men like Jerry Falwell, the men were happily smoking, cussing, and taking each other's money. That and there seemed to be an awful lot of beer consumption. Every once in a while, someone said something that teed off someone else and there were a few words exchanged and a chair or two knocked over, but everyone knew it was just the beer talking. That and there was money to be made. They soon settled down, lit up, popped a couple more cans, and generally got the cards flying again.

Mick and Dennis took several cans of beer. I still don't know how they got them, because the men were as thick as flies in the garage (and men will guard their beer), but I saw them wrap them in a shirt and put them behind a tree stump. They saw me looking. They knew that I knew, and Mick gestured with a fist into his open palm. I just shook my head, knowing they were too dumb to let it ride.

So we finished the game. The mosquitoes were getting unbearable anyway. Johnny was inside listening to Crystal Gayle on the console stereo. Probably with a glass of milk and some cookies. I think his mother had grounded him to the house after she found out about the paint. It was his own fault. I told him to get rid of the stupid shirt.

I had wondered how long it would take.

I felt Mick's push the second before I felt Dennis behind my knees. Laying there on the ground, I put on a face for them, made them feel pretty tough - you know, like I'd gotten the "message". Those country boys, standing over me with their arms crossed, they didn't know what they had started. The key to successful revenge is, and always has been, timing. So I cowered, appreciably.

Later that evening, I watched them through the backdoor of the milk house. I couldn't see them very clearly as they sat with their backs to the sign, because they had turned off the light. I knew that they were there because I could see the orange sparks of their cigarettes dancing in the darkness. I could hear them laughing and joking, each with a beer that was probably as warm and flat as, well, urine. But all they cared about was that they had beers and that they were drinking them. I suspected that they weren't mental giants, at any rate. I had four green apples in my shirt, and I was waiting in the dark of the milk house. As the right car came, one loaded with teenagers, I opened the door and sent the apples soaring in rapid succession. I stepped back inside, heard the door catch and lock. I waited - imagining the apples' glorious arcs in the darkness, hearing the sound of breath rush in and out of my lungs - and then flicked on the switch. In the sudden brightness, there was an unbelievably loud whump, followed immediately by another and then the sound of screeching brakes. There was a moment of silence as the driver, I'm sure, pondered what to do next. It was brief (a car is personal, after all). There was the sound of spitting gravel as the car wheeled around, accelerated, slowed down, and gunned into the driveway. I melted into the darkness, regretfully missing the action, and cut over to Grandma's. I got there just in time to see the four squad cars pull up and the troopers pile out with their guns drawn.

Grandma, of course, was livid. She wagged her finger at me and boxed my ears with open palms. Her face was all red and her blue vein was doing some kind of snake dance. I told her that it was not me, that I was nowhere near the house when the fight broke out, and I smiled while she gave me a string of the old German, stamped up and down, whirled, and rolled her eyes. She called my father and told him that she could no longer be responsible for a child with no soul. She told him I had something to do with that carload of guys coming up the drive spoiling for a fight. She told him about all of those drunk, angry men playing poker in the garage all night. I knew Pop would be angry with me when he got there. I also knew that Mother would be angry, too, but she was not allowed in Grandma's house on account of her being Lutheran and all, so I knew I wouldn't see her until I got home.

In the darkness, along that long gray highway, I knew there would be silence. There was. But in my head, all I could hear was that sound, that first delicious whump from the green apple. That was the first thing. Then I thought about the looks on those dorks' faces as I turned on the outside light, and they realized, scrambling to their feet, that they looked guilty as hell.

Seeing them scramble like that...some things are just too beautiful for words. I knew then that there was more to being a professional social miscreant than a certain amoral inclination. It takes creativity; it takes the sheer love of petty misery. But it is driven by boredom. Even the small things, the delicious small things, lose their appeal. The problem is, when you love something this much, eventually you get caught.

I reckon the priest will tell me the same thing; he has already told me to reflect on all that I will miss in life because of my actions. It's supposed to be some kind of penance, I think. That's okay, though, I'll let him think he has got me thinking for awhile; but while he is praying over me and his eyes are closed, I'll slip him a picture of a naked woman.

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