A Reason to Live — By Thomas Kearnes

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Greg suggests we pool our money for a bottle of Mad Dog. He’s smiling, the left corner of his mouth out of sync. I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for lopsided smiles. I look through my cache of old photos, there’s only one theme: the lopsided smile.

I visit him once a week, after the typing class at the junior college. I’m just a few months older than Greg but still trying to pull my life together. My mother gives me fifty dollars a week, which is just enough for cigarettes. I have a few bucks left for the rest of the week. Greg’s parents left him a little cash as well, at their last visit. I have no idea what they think he’s going to do with it. He’s trapped in this room with its antiseptic lace curtains and this funny smell.

Greg’s parents are no fools. They know what he’s been doing, the drugs and hopping from flophouse to flophouse in Austin. They know what led him to the Glengrove Retirement Home, where he sits in bed watching “Law and Order” reruns on a TV bolted high on the wall; it’s the only institution his insurance would cover. The doctors removed Greg’s right leg from the knee down last month. All the shit he’s mainlined into his veins left the tissue in his lower leg dead or diseased. He turns thirty-three in three weeks.

“I thought you were going to quit.”

“By the time we split it, it’s barely be enough to get a buzz.”

“So?”

“So, it doesn’t count. It’s nothing.”

I slouch in my seat. When he was still my boyfriend, before he broke up with me last month per SMS, I used to sit next to him on the bed. We were even holding hands. Now there’s some sense of despair about him.

“I don’t even know where they sell it,” I say.

“They’ve got it at the gas station just down High Street.”

“How do you know?”

“Paul told me, the nurse.”

“The one who split a joint with you last week?”

Greg snorts, nods. Missing one leg, he can still charm men into anything. When we broke up I’d figured he wouldn’t want to see me again. But it was him who called me, asking when I’d drop by. I’m trying to suppress the thought he (only) needs me for booze runs.

He opens the bedside drawer and scoops out a couple of wrinkled bills. He reaches over and tucks the money into my hand. First time he’s touching me since the break-up (except for when I arrived, when he hugged me, sort-of). I’m missing his haphazard touches.

I leave the Glengrove institution and drive the half-mile to the gas station. I’ve never drunk Mad Dog before, and Greg wants the green apple flavor. I pay for the wine and leave the store. Per his instruction, I hide the bottle in my satchel as I walk the antiseptic hall to his room. Inside, I pull out the bottle and ask if I bought the right one (I know I did). He grabs it and pours half into a large, electric-blue mug already filled with chipped ice.

“You’ve been waiting for this quite some time,” I say.

“You have no idea.” He takes a long swig from the mug and hands it to me. It tastes syrupy and sticky.

“Come sit next to me,” he says.

“On the bed?”

“Well, I sure as hell can’t come over there.” He laughs and lightly rubs my shoulder. I ask him to scoot over; then I join him in the bed. His stump rests on a pillow, wrapped in acres of gauze. We pass the mug of wine back and forth. It isn’t long before he needs a refill; he pours the rest of the bottle. On TV, “Law and Order” still plays. Conny Rubirosa, Cyrus Lupo, and Michael Cutter are sequestered in a courtroom. A witness starts to cry.

 

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“I’m not sure how often you want me to come over,” I say.

He cocks his head. “Why’d ya say that?”

“Well, we’re not really going out anymore and—“

“You’re still my best friend.”

He needs someone to buy his booze, I think, and before I can stop myself, I say it. “You need someone to buy your booze.”

“Aw, c’mon man, you know it’s more than that.”

“What is it then?” I ask. He doesn’t answer.

“I still think about you. I miss you.” I say.

“I miss you, too,” he says.

“Things will look better once they fit you with a prosthesis,” I say.

“That’s what they say.”

“It’s true.”

“You coming to see me next week?” he asks.

“There’s only one sip left,” I say. “Mind if I drink it?”

“Sure, but only if you answer my question.”

I lean over and peck his cheek. I have enough money for a second bottle. We could sit here all afternoon and drink.


Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Gertrude, A cappella Zoo, Split Lip Magazine, Cutthroat, Litro, Berkeley Fiction Review, PANK, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, Wraparound South, Night Train, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, The Matador Review, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, The James Franco Review and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as a cashier. His debut collection of short fiction, “Steers and Queers” will print at Lethe Press in 2019.

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