The Savage Screwball
I was at Starbucks sipping coffee, reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, when a feeling hit me: Everything was perfect.
The sensation was so striking I put the book down.
I looked outside: the sun was smiling, birds chirped, traffic advanced smoothly. The world was a mid-century postcard.
Emboldened, feeling especially good after my morning workout, I texted Vanessa if she could come over tomorrow night. I said I could cook lasagna and buy a bottle of red wine, her favorite.
“Here ya go,” said Madeline, the tall, beautiful barista with bright tattoo sleeves, placing a fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip muffin in front of me. The waft of baked dough was delectable.
“Thank you. They don’t pay you enough,” I flirted.
“But I get to see that smile of yours,” she flirted back.
Oh Madeline. I imagined us spending a day at the beach, me admiring her resplendent body art when I heard a bang. A man had pushed open the door into Starbucks. He had dark skin, army fatigue pants, crazed homeless eyes. He stunk. He looked to be my dad’s age. He peered left, right, straight ahead, then spotted me. He marched right up to me.
“Hey, let me bum a few bucks, dude,” he said. He smelled like a dead animal. His face was like expired beef jerky.
I patted my pocketless basketball shorts—my wallet was on the table—and said:
“Sorry, sir. Don’t carry cash.”
The man’s face twisted in ugly directions—was plain ugly.
“Little prick,” he mumbled, then marched right out of Starbucks.
Despite the insult, what struck me most was that he was clean-shaven. Some things don’t add up only after you think about them.
I felt someone’s eyes pierce the back of my head, so I turned around and caught an old black woman shaking her permed head at me.
“Yes?” I said.
She swiftly lifted up her Vanity Fair magazine to cover her face, effectively blocking me out.
I see how it is, I thought. Then my phone buzzed. Mom.
“Hey, Mom, what’s going on?”
“Hi mijo, I hope you’re having a great weekend. Real quick, I’m calling to update you on the house situation. I’ve thought a lot about it and…we’ve decided to sell it. I know, I know, that’s not what you wanted, but I think selling’s the right move right now. Lance agreed. He said the market is—”
“I don’t care what Lance thinks,” I interrupted.
“No, I’ve already told you I’m willing—more than willing to take it over. The house is all I have left…all we have left of Dad.”
Mom stayed quiet for a few seconds.
“I know, mijo,” she said softly. “I know. But me and Lance—”
I hung up on her. It wasn’t that Lance was white—he was—or that he’d become Mom’s boyfriend six months after Dad’s heart attack. It was his predilection to butt into our family affairs, give his two-and-a-half cents when we were good on the money. Lance wasn’t a bad guy, I don’t think, but that didn’t mean I didn’t think him a snake slithering on my property. White people, like snakes, have no propriety when it comes to death and property.
I pictured myself stomping on a snake’s head then sipped my black coffee. It was now lukewarm. It had lost its desired effect—to burn my tongue.
I went back to my book. I read a sentence six times over. I couldn’t comprehend it for the life of me. Bolaño wasn’t Balzac, but I might as well have been blind.
I put the book down again and closed my eyes. I focused in on the song playing in the back. “Maria Maria” by Carlos Santana. I started bobbing my head and was immediately brought back to middle school football, being on bus rides with the boys. Falling asleep, drooling.
As Santana made his guitar sing, I placed myself in Spanish Harlem, like in the song. Maria Maria—living the life like a movie star. She was getting ready for our hot date, putting on her makeup. It was always me waiting for her, Maria. She took forever, always. “Beauty takes time,” she’d always tell me.
How amazing would it be if even just for ten seconds, I wondered, if I was Santana’s guitar—no, his fingers, his magical fingers with so much talent they could make guitars sing and moan, just like women? What would it be like, I wondered, to have millions of fans across the world chant my name, beg encores every single night like I was the god of music? Like I was…Santana?
The song finished and I found myself tapping my left foot like mad. I was anxious. I needed fresh air. It was my day off, after all, so I needed to enjoy it.
The rude homeless man was sitting on the sidewalk by the Starbucks entrance. He looked up at me, studied me for two seconds, and seemed not to remember me one bit. He was whacked out.
Finally, he asked, “Got a cigarette I can bum?”
I was taken aback by the politeness in his voice. I patted the sides of my shorts where there were no pockets.
“Sorry, sir. Don’t smoke.”
“Geez, who you gotta blow around here to get a smoke? The Muffin Man?”
My muffin! I’d left it uneaten on the plate. Like my coffee, it was getting colder—was probably already cold. But then, the homeless guy. My sympathy synapses had already started firing. If I couldn’t help the man get a smoke, the least I could do was feed him. Right?
“Hold on a sec,” I said.
A few seconds later, I was back outside, objects in hand.
“Take this,” I said, handing the muffin to the man, “and eat it.”
“And take this,” I said, handing him the coffee cup, “and drink it. This is my blood.”
He accepted the muffin and coffee hesitantly. He sniffed the muffin, as if trying to detect poison. Then he threw it hard into the street. I didn’t even blink. I watched the muffin get pulverized by oncoming traffic.
The man polished off the coffee in one swig, burped loud, then set the empty cup on the ground. He reached inside his camo pants and pulled out a crumpled cigarette and a lighter.
“You had one this whole time?” I said.
“Last one. I get ‘em where I can.”
My phone buzzed. A text from Vanessa.
I can’t come over. Ted is in town the next couple weeks.
“Doomed!” the homeless man shouted. “We’re all doomed!”
He tapped cigarette ashes into the cup. The Starbucks woman imprinted on it still smiled her green smile. I’d never smoked a day in my life, but in that moment, a cigarette sounded so good. Anything did. Anything but standing there with the crazy homeless man, thinking the thoughts I was thinking.
“Hey, do me a favor and toss this into the street, willya,” I said, handing the man my iPhone.
He accepted it hesitantly then said:
“And what do I get out of it?”
“Cigarettes and a cheeseburger,” I answered finally.
He scratched his expired beef jerky chin.
“It’s gotta be from Whataburger, though. I don’t want no McDonald’s.”
“Deal,” I said.
Without wasting any time he launched my iPhone hard into the street. It flew upward as though toward heaven then took a sudden cruel dive toward traffic. I saw it get obliterated. Smashed into a hundred little pieces. Nobody stopped. Nothing changed.
“Incredible,” I said.
“That’s my screwball. Pretty good, huh?”
“Fucking amazing,” I agreed, holding back tears.
Alex Z. Salinas lives in San Antonio, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Every Day Fiction, Mystery Tribune, Nanoism, escarp, Pecan Grove Review, 101 Words, 101 Fiction, 365tomorrows, 121 Words, Friday Flash Fiction, and ZeroFlash. He serves as poetry editor of the San Antonio Review.