3:6: “More Beautiful Than You”, by M. Rickert

3:6: “More Beautiful Than You”, by M. Rickert

I don’t even fucking usually read the paper but I’m home for Thanksgiving and it’s the same old shit, my mom and the aunts getting wasted in the kitchen, nobody paying no attention to the turkey. The stuffing sits in the box on the counter, next to the cans of cranberries. They’re cackling away in there like they do every year and every year it’s mostly the same except Uncle Freddie ain’t here ’cause he died last Spring of a busted vein in his brain and my cousin Eddie ain’t here and nobody knows where he is, but my aunt says she ain’t worried. I wonder if he’s dead. Could I of done more to keep him off the streets? Maybe I should of told him, yeah, this is one fucked up family, and the turkey is always dry and shit but it’s your family and that means something. But I never did try to say nothing like that. Who knows? Maybe he ain’t dead or living under some city bridge. Maybe he’s sitting down right now, turning on the tube, watching the game in a house that smells good like Thanksgiving should and maybe he’s even happy. But I doubt it. He’s probably in some crack house somewhere and don’t even know what day it is.

I’m just sitting there listening to my mom and the aunts while the light gets dark and I think how it’s good to be home for Thanksgiving. Fucked up as it is. So I get to start looking through the Fullbrook paper, reading the articles like how the Maynards cows got loose and how Cindy Falloway got a blue ribbon in spelling. I guess she’s in fourth grade and it’s hard to believe that Becky Falloway who got knocked up senior year and was the best piece of ass at Fullbrook High is now the mother of a champion speller. I look at the kid’s picture and she is grinning a big, stupid ten-year-old grin and it’s way too early to tell if she’ll be anything like her mother, but thinking like that starts to feel kind of twisted so I turn the page and that’s when I see Ronnie Webster’s name and it takes me a few seconds before I realize it’s his fucking obituary. Ronnie Webster is dead. I don’t go in and open the cans of cranberries or turn on the light or any of the shit I traditionally do to get my mom and the aunts moving, a tradition Ronnie Webster had something to do with starting, actually. I just sit there and it gets darker and darker. The turkey is going to be drier than usual this year but I don’t give a fuck.

———•———

So this weird thing happens in Omaha. I’m in the second round going at this Tae Kwon Do teacher from Michigan and all a sudden I have a minute, while this guy is getting his head pressed into the rope, to sort of scan the crowd, you know, take a breath, and it’s like I’m hallucinating or something because all a sudden there’s Ronnie Webster’s face and I swear this is freakin’ weird but I swear he’s sitting there in the stands and then he sees me looking and waves. I have to get my concentration back so I pound this guy until he signals submission, and I raise my hands clenched over my head ’cause it’s a victory. When I try to see Ronnie I can’t find him nowhere in the crowd. Course, ’cause he’s fucking dead.

He was ugly. Take out the Fullbrook High Yearbook, class of ’82 and see for yourself. That’s me on the same page. I’m about two-fifty there. Not so many high schoolers go my size. But the difference ain’t just the weight. I’ve met some bad ass skinny dudes but not Ronnie Webster.

There he is. Bet you thought I was just being mean. But I can tell you agree. You want not to agree. But you see what I mean. Fish eyes. Crooked nose. It was straight before it got broke. I’ll take the blame for that even if it ain’t only me. And those teeth. Actually we improved them. Five got knocked out and replaced. That’s how come they look pretty good in the picture. What you can’t see is the way he used to dress. Weird. I mean it’s like he just tried to make himself ugly. His parents were loaded. They lived in one of those houses on Fox Ridge. He could of dressed any way he wanted. He was their only kid. Somebody said he was adopted but I don’t know nothing about that and I don’t give a shit. I saw his parents that time I followed him home and they just looked like regular parents. He was a freak. We beat him up and put him in the hospital. This was a long time ago and we didn’t kill him. So why the fuck is he haunting me now?

Raine says I think too much. She says thinking is over rated. “What did thinking ever do for anyone?” she says. “You just sit there and stare into space and nothing happens. That’s what I liked about you. I thought you was an action man.” She pulls off her little white underpants and throws them at my face. “Ronnie Webster,” she snickers as I unzip my pants, “is long gone. Forget about him.”

But what Raine don’t know is everything. It’s not just a little detail, it’s the whole bang. She’s moaning and I’m grunting and if she was the thinking kind at all she’d be thinking it was only us; the ultimate fighter and his girl. She don’t know.

Ronnie Webster is watching us. He’s sitting in the corner in the rocking chair, and he’s grinning. Like I don’t know how he looked by the time he died but here he looks like he did in high school, like a girl, except he’s got his dick in his hands. I look at it and then I look at him and he just grins. White teeth. Pink cheeks. “Oh Action,” Raine says. I close my eyes. When I open them he’s gone.

———•———

We got him on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. I guess you could say we was in a bad mood. Not Ronnie. But me and the guys. None of us wanting to go home or be anywhere. We used to say we fuckin’ hated school but when it was closed we just stood around different street corners and smoked. We didn’t talk about it but we all fuckin’ hated being home even worse.

So it’s Wednesday night and we’re hanging out by Myer’s Grocery store, the dark side of the building. It’s the night before Thanksgiving so it’s been kind of busy for a while. A new Price Chopper just opened up on Highway 10 and we don’t know it, but it’s the last Thanksgiving for Myer’s Store. It ain’t that late but the street is pretty quiet. I don’t remember what we’re talking about. Then along comes Ronnie Webster in those weird red sneakers and those straight leg jeans and this hat, this flat pancake hat with the little tip of material at the top and he’s whistling and one of us, and I can never remember if it was me or who, but somebody goes, “Get him.” We pulled him in and wailed on him. He made these little whimpering sounds. Then he got quiet and all you could hear was fist and flesh. Breathing. And all a sudden, without any signal or word, we stopped. Ran in different directions. Left him there like roadkill.

You didn’t think this story would be pretty, did you?

———•———

It happens again in Cleveland. During the first round when I am actually restraining myself from completely smashing this stupid kid into pieces because you gotta give the crowd at least a little show. I am putting on a sparring act and he’s doing all his Ninja Turtles moves on me and I’m thinking how pitiful it is because I know, and the crowd knows, and he seems to be the only one who don’t know, he’s doing his last good breathing for the next few days. I look into the crowd for just a minute like, ’cause I’m sort of bored, and there’s Ronnie Webster selling hot dogs for Christ sake, and I guess he sees me ’cause he waves and then the kid lands a sidekick to my face that’s got the whole crowd roaring and I’m busy for a while. This lasts maybe forty seconds. But when I look up again to raise my arms in victory, the whole crowd chanting, “Action, Action” (they call me Action) I can’t see him nowhere. Maybe he’s ashamed. Who would of guessed it? Ronnie Webster. A hot dog vendor ghost.

He was the artist type in high school, getting poems in the school paper and shit. I never read none of them so I can’t say much about that but during the time when I was following him I watched him paint once. It was after school. Chorus was singing some Jesus joy song about Christmas and the janitors was down in their office in the basement getting stoned. Mrs. Smythe was in her room correcting papers and Mr. Lyman was sort of wandering around the way he did. I didn’t know it then but after we graduated Mrs. Lyman hung herself with the afghan she’d been basically knitting and ripping apart for the past ten years. It turns out she was a real nut case all along and Mr. Lyman stayed at school sometimes ’cause he didn’t wanna go home. Which is funny in a way ’cause that’s not so different from me and my friends that he was always busting on. It was getting close to Christmas vacation, you know the chorus singing “Joy, joy, joy” and those construction paper snowflakes and candy canes and all that shit and Ronnie Webster all alone in the art room. I’m just standing in the hall. He’s gotta know I’m there. I ain’t hiding or nothing.

I have to squint at first ’cause the art room’s got all these big windows and because of the snow it’s all this bright white. Ronnie’s got on these queer knee high boots with fuckin’ fringe on them and these striped pants and this fem yellow sweater. Then he stops whistling and he starts waving his arms over the canvas and it changes into a slash of red, black, purple. He’s gotta know I’m watching, and then, all a sudden, he stops and I think, ok, it’s gonna happen now. I can hear my own breathing and the fuckin’ Christmas carols. And I ain’t thinking nothing except ok, it’s gonna happen. He just stands there, hanging his head like he’s praying or something and then, real careful, he puts down his paintbrush and pulls the sweater off. He’s got on just a wife beater but he ain’t got no muscle, his shape is the shape of bones. For the first time I see all the bruises we give him and where it’s not bruised he is white as soap. He just stands there. Then he looks up, right at me with those eyes laced with lashes like a girl. But I don’t say nothing. We just look at each other. Then I hear Mr. Lyman coming down the hall and I leave.

———•———

When we left him like that, a heap of flesh and blood, we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Not that I was worried about him. All I thought about was how I just screwed up my whole life.

Thanksgiving day is my mom and the aunts sitting around the kitchen table getting drunk on Budweiser and forgetting to do anything with the turkey once it’s in the oven. Me and my cousins and my uncle watch the games and eat crackers and salami and crack open a few beers but I don’t let the little kids drink and they start whining and I holler at them to go outside and act like normal kids. My little cousin Eddie tells me to Fuck off and I just ignore him ’cause I fucked up so bad already. I just stare at the TV set but I ain’t watching it and after awhile nobody bothers me. I guess you can tell I’m in a mood or something and I am ’cause I’m just expecting any minute the cops to come knocking on the door. But it just keeps getting later and later and finally it starts getting dark and I go around turning on the lights. When I turn the big light on in the kitchen my mom and the aunts look up at me all a sudden all quiet and I say, “Shouldn’t you be mashing potatoes or something?” When I walk away I hear them laughing but the chairs scrape back and my mom starts swearing at the turkey.

Then the phone rings and it’s B.T. and he tells me Ronnie Webster is at Fullbrook Hospital and he won’t tell no one who got him ’cause he wants to take care of it himself. So we have a good laugh over that. “What’s he gonna do, write mean poems about us?”

The turkey’s dry like it’s always dry. The mash potatoes and gravy is lumpy. The only thing really good is the cranberries ’cause you can’t mess them up right out of the can. My mom and aunts all have pink faces and when I look at them I think how they really are sort of pretty. Even my mom. The TV is on ’cause my uncle Frankie and his son, Eddie, are football freaks and they holler from the other room where they are eating and there’s little kids running all over the place and I gotta tell you, for like one minute, two even, I just sit there grinning. And I ain’t even stoned.

———•———

In Tulsa I see Ronnie sitting next to Raine. This is before the fight. The crowd is screaming. “Action! Action! Action!” I’m waving my arms in my pre-victory stance and there’s Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine. I give a sort of salute wave and they both wave back. Ronnie, just raising his hand, and Raine, jumping up and down like a fuckin’ cheerleader. I am so distracted by the thought of Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine and what he might say to her that I fuckin’ almost lose the fight.

Afterwards I ask Raine about him. “He was sitting right next to you,” I say. “A skinny guy.”

“I didn’t notice him,” she says, addressing my wounds. “Jesus, you let that guy tear you up.”

“He don’t tear me up,” I say, “he’s just some kid I use to know from high school.”

“I don’t mean stupid Ronnie Webster,” she says. “I mean the guy you was fighting.”

———•———

When he comes back to school he is ugly in a different way. His face is just a fuckin’ wound. He got stitches hanging all over the place. He got stitches in his mouth for Christ’s sake. But he acts like the same. Walking down the hall in those red shoes. Suddenly he’s like the most popular kid in school. But he’s not into it, you can just see he’s still ol’ Ronnie Webster and as far as he’s concerned nothing’s changed. Then he sees me. He looks right at me, and it’s the weirdest thing, he’s gotta know. But he just looks at me like I don’t matter one way or the other and he just keeps walking. That’s the first time I really think about what I did. Jesus, I nearly killed that kid. All a sudden I realize people are watching. When I look at them, they turn away.

That’s when I start following him. I follow him to all his classes so I’m late or I skip mine. I don’t give a shit about school. I follow him home to that big house with all those windows on Fox Ridge. I keep a good distance but he’s gotta know. The way you know when you’re being watched. You can just feel it in your skin, even if they turn away when you look at them. It’s like how I can feel him now, watching me.

Back then it’s like I’m the ghost following Ronnie. I watch him in the john. I watch him paint. I watch him shovel his driveway on Saturday morning. I watch him and his parents leave for church on Sunday. Finally the day before Christmas vacation, we’re in the cafeteria. He sits slurping his food for Christ’s sake and reading some book about leaves and grass. People say things to him and he smiles or laughs even though with his mouth open you can see the stitches hanging there. I don’t even know I’m gonna do this. I go sit across from him. You can just feel the whole cafeteria go silent. Like everybody’s watching now. Ronnie puts down his book and looks at me. I can feel my muscles tighten. I can feel the muscles in the room tighten. But Ronnie just looks at me.

“I’m one of them,” I say, soft like, so only he can hear.

“I know,” he says.

We sit there like that for a few seconds. Then he just picks up his book and keeps slurping and reading and after a while I get up and walk away.

———•———

I ain’t scared, if that’s what you’re thinking. When he’s in the stands waving at me while I turn some guy’s face into blue ribbon chili, or when he’s in the room, watching me and Raine and she says, “It don’t matter honey, it happens to everyone. Did I tell you I’m going to be busy for the next few weeks?” and he just sits there, laughing, or even when it’s just me alone with him, I ain’t scared. Even as a ghost Ronnie Webster is mostly just annoying. Like right now. He’s standing in the mirror and he’s fucking laughing. I know why, ok? I mean my face is right there to prove it. I’m a ugly fuck. Ok? You satisfied, you fucking ghost? “I’m a ugly fuck! I’m a ugly fuck!”

I don’t even realize I’m shouting until the downstairs neighbor starts pounding on the ceiling. “Shut the fuck up, you ugly fuck,” he screams.

“Fuck you!” I holler.

“Fuck you, you fucker!”

He pounds on the ceiling again and I stamp on the floor. He turns his music up. Loud. Fucking Aerosmith. And I sit down on the edge of the bed.

Fuck, I feel like shit. Ronnie comes and sits beside me. Right on the bed. I say, “Fuck, Ronnie? What the fuck you want?”

He turns and looks at me and fuck, how could I be wrong about this for so long? I look at him and he looks at me, and then, like we are fucking twilight zone people, we both open our mouths but I’m the only one who actually talks.

I say, “Beautiful.”

And then, just like that, he’s gone and I’m fucking sitting there on the edge of my bed. Alone.

—THE END—



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