Issue > Fiction
Hugh Burkhart

Hugh Burkhart

Hugh Burkhart's short fiction has been published in Glimmer Train, 2 Bridges Review, The Los Angeles Review and Work Literary Magazine. He lives in San Diego, California with his wife and son. He is currently at work on a novel.

You'll Never Guess Who I Saw

George Kelly was thinking of a joke he and his wife had been sharing recently. He was driving to meet Todd Briksa at a coffee place Todd frequented. George tried to avoid the place these days. Just like he avoided answering the telephone when it rang at six o'clock in the evening.

"Hey," Sarah imitated Todd's gravelly whisper whenever the phone rang unanswered, "is Georgie there?"

"Hey, Georgie," George would respond dolefully. "It's me. Todd."

They'd laugh, though eventually Todd would catch one of them unawares. You couldn't just ignore every call you got at the dinner hour, even if most of them were telemarketers or Todd. For one thing, Sarah's mother was very sick. For another, George was looking for work. The next call could be from a prospective employer. Luckily for George, both were good excuses to end a conversation. Gotta go, Toddie. Don't like tying up the phone these days. On occasions when they simply let the phone ring, George and Sarah's four year old, Lucas, would demand, "Is someone going to get the phone?" The situation had become a family comedy routine. When an old friend becomes an inside joke, George thought, you have to reevaluate the friendship.

Back when George met him, Todd was the best guitarist he knew. This was when George was fourteen and Todd, his guitar teacher, was five years older. By then Todd was already playing in bands and doing session work. George was just learning to play, and Todd offered the necessary encouragement. He listened patiently as George fretted and strummed ham-fistedly, even letting George pluck out a few bars on his vintage Stratocaster. After fifteen years casting his musical net increasingly further afield in search of fame, Todd had long since pawned all his equipment except a cheap, nylon-stringed acoustic. While he had lost none of his talent, George now recognized flaws. Todd's greater lack was a sense of personal responsibility and money, the first of which George prided himself on and the second aspired to. Since Todd had recently taken to phoning or, worse, dropping by, George's opinion of him was based more on character defects and less on admiration.

As he parked across the street, George saw Todd through the coffee shop's front window. Todd smiled sheepishly and waved. His fingers stuck out from the ends of his hobo gloves. George opened the shop's door and was met with a warm waft of coffee and pastry, a welcome change from the crispness outside. It was fall. Todd wore a beanie over his matted dreads. His beard was growing out. Todd usually had a baby face and his stubble sprouted in irregular patches. George figured the beard owed more to a lack of a razor than a fashion statement.

"Hey, how's it going, Georgie?" Todd greeted him with a surprisingly tight handclasp for someone so stringy. He jabbed George lightly in the belly. "Married life's filling you out."

"Sarah and I are both terrible cooks," George said. "We eat way more pasta than we should."

Sitting down across the table, George noticed Todd had neither food nor drink in front of him.

"I'm surprised they haven't kicked you out," George said.

"They know me here," Todd said, twirling a dread between the dirty fingernails on his right hand, his picking hand. "They humor me when I come in on open mic night."

"Well I'm getting a coffee. You want anything?"

"Yeah, actually I'd like one of those ginger beers they have. And a cookie if you don't mind."

George should have expected the request from Todd, who was never shy about asking a favor - from cadging a ride home to inviting himself to dinner. Todd didn't get up as George went to the counter. He eyed George like a greedy child as cookie and ginger beer were set before him. The two didn't speak until Todd had wolfed down the cookie and chased it with a couple of long pulls from his bottle.

"I'm glad you finally agreed to hang with me," Todd said, wiping crumbs from his wispy mustache. "I thought your wife would never let you out."

"Sarah doesn't control me," George said, his face flushing. He and Sarah considered themselves partners, reaffirmed this regularly to each other during times of conflict. His defensiveness embarrassed him.

"I didn't mean to imply anything," Todd said. "I'm just happy to see you, man."

"Have you been playing much?" George was surprised Todd didn't have the nylon-stringed acoustic with him but was afraid to mention it. "You said you were doing open mics."

"I've been playing out some, writing a lot. People are kind of reluctant to let me on stage, you know. I guess I look like someone who'll get up there and start yelling like a maniac."

"You do look like someone who would get up there and start yelling like a maniac." George was relieved to find an opportunity to joke. He should have realized the situation did not call for levity. He should have stayed on guard.

"But get this," Todd said. "There is no way I can keep my guitar and the gear I have at the place I'm staying."

"Where are you staying?" George asked timorously.

"Temporarily? The downtown shelter. My guitar is with this girl I know. I have a pickup so I can play out of this cool sounding portable amp I got. I keep this stuff at her place too. It's just that I don't like to have to call her up to get my shit every time I need it."

"Maybe you shouldn't keep it with her," George offered.

"That's the catch, isn't it? Either I keep everything at the shelter where someone is bound to steal it as soon as my back is turned, or I keep it with this girl who hates me."

"If she agreed to hold onto the equipment, she's gotta understand you'll have to drop by from time to time."

"It sucks," Todd sighed. "I don't even have a phone. And with this girl I get the feeling you have when a person agrees to do something then regrets it and finds you annoying immediately afterwards."

George sighed too. He was familiar with this feeling.

Here was the thing. Todd had done George some good turns. Todd had seen something in George at a time when not many did. George had been a pasty, unathletic kid. Not particularly bright, not a dullard. In short, average intellectually, slightly below average physically - destined for a middle management cubicle. That he found himself unemployed yet married to an attractive, creative woman who bore him a handsome and quick-witted son George attributed to Todd's influence. Todd worked with George to hone his limited skills into something resembling musicianship. Eventually, he wound up in a band. That's how he met Sarah, who wore a spikey haircut and looked great in skinny jeans. Later, she grew her hair out and went to teachers' college but lost none of her fashion sense. Or her looks. George's band broke up, and he entered a community college studio engineer program, working evenings at the music store where Todd once taught. If it weren't for Todd's patience as a guitar teacher and mentor, George might never have found his niche. Todd also introduced George to the best pot he'd ever smoked. Maybe the weed accounted for Todd's preternatural talents.

Todd invented a sound that blended hand-cramping chords, polyrhythmic strumming, and modal lead runs. His local band acquired a cultish following, and soon Todd was asked to tour with a more established group. Yet he always had time for George, spotted him weed when George was short of cash. Even all these years later trying unsuccessfully to become a sound engineer in a town that didn't need any, and struggling to find steady employment while DJing weddings on the weekends, George shuddered to think of what he might have become without Todd. He was glad he would never be as lonely as he was as an untalented, ungainly boy and happy he was not raising a child as awkward as he himself had been.

"So I would have gladly left Oakland, but Rhiannon insisted on leaving the apartment to me. It was the beginning of July and there was still the last month's rent on the place. I gave notice and stuck around for two more months."

Todd had stayed for dinner after coming by to pick up his gear. He sat with George, Sarah, and Lucas at the dining table in their small, two-bedroom apartment. His plate was cleaned to a shine. He slid a piece of bread around to pick up any remaining beef drippings or bits of potato. Sarah looked overly interested in what Todd was saying. George had heard this story before. He set his left elbow on the table and rested his chin on his cupped hand, drumming a soft tattoo on his knee with his right.

"Suddenly I was alone in California, you know?" Todd continued. "Rhiannon moved to Berkeley, which made sense for her. But now all my friends, if you can call them that, were meth heads."

"Lucas, you're finished with your dinner," George said. "Why don't you go play?"

"What's a meth head?" Lucas asked.

Before George could answer, Todd turned to Lucas and intoned seriously, "It's a monster who pretends he's your friend then tries to steal your soul when you're not looking."

"That's silly," Lucas said. "Dad, is there going to be dessert?"

After dinner, Todd showed Lucas how to fret a note on a single string so that the highest three strings formed a chord. Lucas was delighted he could easily play simple chords on the nylon strings, which were not as hard on the fingers as metal. George had never thought to teach Lucas this way. He'd just assumed the kid's fingers were too small.

"He's a natural," Todd said. "Just like his old man."

"I was never a natural," George scoffed, blushing.

"Well if your folks let me leave it here a few more days, you can play my guitar any time you want," Todd told Lucas.

The old con of appealing to the enraptured child. How could George refuse?

He lay in bed that night looking into the dark. Sarah turned over and walked her fingers across his tense jaw.

"Did you think it was that bad?" she asked. "Because I didn't."

"I have to admit he was better than I expected," he said.

"Lucas adored him."

"And we still have Todd's stuff here," George said. "We agreed we shouldn't give him a reason to just drop by anytime."

"I was supposed to do something about this?" Sarah rose up on her forearms. "I don't recall you putting up much of an argument."

"All we can hope is that this doesn't turn into something permanent. Maybe he'll make amends with this girl his gear was with."

"He's sleeping with her," Sarah said, lying down again and giving George her back.

"I don't know about that." George ran his hand along her spine.

"Someone like Todd always has a chick," she said. "Even as bummy as he is right now. Rhiannon must have seen something in him that she let him follow her all the way to California. She's in a PhD program for god's sake."

George continued drawing on Sarah's back, inching his fingers downward almost imperceptibly.

"Why did you tell Todd you thought we were terrible cooks?" she asked. "We eat at least as good as Lucas, and he gets all his vegetables."

"Jesus, I wish he hadn't mentioned that. I just feel like I'm getting out of shape is all. I'd like to start eating healthy again and taking better care of myself."

"That's admirable, honey," Sarah yawned, "but let's be honest. You were never really in shape."

George was about to run his fingers down her ass when, breathing deeply, Sarah turned over onto her stomach. Rolling onto his back, he clasped his hands behind his head and stared up into the black until his own breaths deepened, his eyelids dropped shut, and sleep came in a slow, heavy wave.

"You know what they called me in New York when I was there?" Todd asked. "A master of dead arts. They didn't mean it complimentary either."

They were back in the coffee shop. This time Lucas was with them. It was a weekday evening and Sarah was busy with parent-teacher interviews.

"What's a master of dead arts?" Lucas asked, looking up from his M & M cookie and grape soda. Todd had finished his own M & M cookie and was nursing a ginger beer. George was halfway through a large coffee fast growing tepid. Todd's guitar and portable amp sat at his feet.

"It's someone who knows a lot about something only to find out that no one cares," Todd said. "Or worse, that people wished he never knew about that thing in the first place."

Lucas paused in munching his cookie and regarded Todd thoughtfully. "I know all the names of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," he said. "Even the dead ones."

Todd chuckled mirthlessly.

"Dad, I need to go to the bathroom," Lucas said.

"Do you need help?" George asked.

Lucas shook his head bravely. From their table at the back of the shop, George scanned the sparsely populated room for potential molesters. Satisfied with the crowd, he pointed to the back where the counter girl tended to an espresso machine.

"The bathroom is the first door on the right just past that lady," he said. "You can't go any farther. Come right back when you're done and don't talk to anyone. If you're not back in four minutes I'll come get you."

Lucas looked at his digital watch and counted up from the minute on his fingers.

"Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen," he said.

"That's right, buddy," George said. "If you're not back here by five nineteen, I'm coming after you."

Lucas toddled off, snubbing the counter girl as he passed.

"So thanks for holding my stuff," Todd said. "You're probably glad I won't be coming over to grab it all the time. You wouldn't want me over there when your old lady's home alone," he laughed.

"Sarah's a married career woman with a four-year-old child," George snapped. "And I'm an unemployed studio engineer. My wife is rarely home alone."

George was tired of playing the tug of war of refusal and acquiescence, of employing the same types of tactics he used with his son at the mall. I'll buy you those baseball cards today, but you're not getting candy popcorn if we're going to McDonald's for lunch. I'll get you a cookie and a drink, but you can't keep storing your shit at my place and asking for money, okay?

"I know you have a very busy and important life," Todd said, "but I'd like to see how you would handle things if the only friends you had were fucking meth head skateboarders who just stand around and laugh if one of their buddies cracks his head open on a curb." Todd began to cry. Thick saliva strands clung to his open lips. "Fucking blood everywhere."

George had cried quietly with Sarah over his job situation. And there were other times. But those were in private. Certainly never when Lucas was around. The counter girl scowled at them from across the room.

"I think someone's son is asking for him," she called.

"I have to check on Lucas, Todd," George said.

He entered the bathroom stall where his son sat over a bowl of watery shit.

"It's five twenty-one," Lucas said.

It took George four more minutes to get Lucas cleaned. When the pair emerged hand in hand from the bathroom, Todd was gone.

"You let Lucas go to the bathroom alone in a coffee shop?" Sarah asked when she got home. Lucas had spilled the beans.

"It was only for a minute," George said.

"Six minutes," Lucas corrected. He was putting on his pajamas. George was about to read him his bedtime story.

"Jesus," Sarah said, leaving Lucas' bedroom.

"Well we're all together and safe now," George said to Lucas. "That's what's important."

"Shit," Sarah said from the bathroom. "I totally meant to get tampons on the way home." She came back to Lucas' bedroom and stood in the doorway. "I'll write down the brand and exactly what I want."

"Mommy said a swear," Lucas said.

"God, I never know–" George began.

"Please don't fucking argue with me, George. It's been a stressful enough night as it is."

George and Lucas gaped at her, speechless.

George didn't have a chance to ask Sarah how parent-teacher night had gone. Not well given her mood, he reflected as he drove. He was grateful for the chance to leave the house. He found half a joint lying on the passenger seat when he got into the car. It must have fallen out of Todd's pocket the last time he was there. Neither George nor Sarah smoked anymore as a rule. George lit it with the car lighter and took a roundabout route to run Sarah's errand. She might be pissed off but he wouldn't be long. Besides, if she was still in a mood when he returned, all the more reason to get high before going home.

George cranked the heat to compensate for the cold air whistling through the window. He wondered what else might be on Sarah's mind. He hoped her mother hadn't taken a turn for the worse. She would wait for Lucas to be in bed before telling George. Now that would be a bummer. Stress over money during his unemployed period was bad enough without adding a family tragedy. Suddenly George felt overcome by a crushing sense of paranoia, the kind of boyish anxiety he felt when he wanted desperately to impress Todd during guitar lessons, but much worse, as if the whole laughing world might swallow him up. He considered pulling over but decided against it for fear of attracting attention. Instead he circled the block around the drug store until his pulse regulated and he was certain he could face the florescent lights and over-fragrant toiletries. George finally parked the car and walked across the blacktop toward the store's glowing entrance. At the edge of the parking lot he stopped. A familiar figure was stooped over the garbage can outside the store. Todd had a large rucksack slung over his back, the guitar's headstock poking out. Intent on rooting through the garbage, he didn't pause to look up. Had he done so, he would have certainly been forced into an exchange with George. Todd raised his head slightly, looked over his shoulder like a guilty animal. Heart pounding again, George quickly turned and hurried back to the car. He switched on the headlights only after he had exited the lot.

Safely back on the road, George considered whether or not Todd had spotted him. Certainly Todd could have been looking at George as he approached. George hadn't noticed Todd until he was practically on top of him. It occurred to George that Todd had always been humble. If he had seen George, he would have simply smiled sheepishly and waggled his hobo gloves, wouldn't he? He might have even asked for a few bucks for smokes and a lift back to the shelter. George would have gladly stopped to ask Todd if there was anything he could do for him. If only he hadn't been so stoned. He most definitely would have stopped if he weren't so stoned. Of course, what would that have led to? Next thing you know Todd's crashing on the couch. Now George had a legitimate excuse for being late. He drove on to the next closest drug store, which was five miles away.


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