Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4,016 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017


by John Talbird

I was fired for showing porn on Friday. I’m a projectionist at the University, have been for twenty years. This semester, I decided to show some porn from my own collection. In hindsight it was pretty stupid, I guess. Just played ten to fifteen minutes each week before the real shows at one and three, and I guess I thought the students would get a kick out of it. Someone complained.

They say shit happens in threes.


The first was two weeks ago. I took a trip back to my hometown. With spring hitting early, I was feeling restless. When it starts getting warm, I know summer’s around the bend, a lot of the students will stop coming, my hours will get cut and the days turn longer. Often, I won’t move from my apartment until it’s dark and some kind of cool. I had this urge to see Nebraska City though it’d been years since I’d been there, when my father died of a heart attack. I wanted to see the narrow streets, that quiet downtown with its two-story brick buildings, pear trees in front of Victorian homes. I didn’t grow up in one of them. My mother died when I was a kid, from breast cancer, and my Pop and I lived on the outskirts of town in a little concrete ranch. People make generalizations about men, that they fall apart without a woman, but Pop and I didn’t need one. He cooked, and I don’t mean just grilled cheese and scrambled eggs. Spaghetti with sausage gravy. Rice and chipped beef on toast. Grilled Spam sandwiches. Pop cleaned the clothes. I’d do dishes, vacuum. We’d take turns cutting the grass. I’d sweep the roof.

There was a large oak in the back, so my dad built a tree house for me. Not just some platform in a tree. I mean a real house, kid-size, in the crook of a branch. Gabled roof, Plexiglas window, a doorway you could open and close in the floor, hand-steps going up the trunk. We painted it blue one Saturday afternoon. Pop didn’t trust me on the ladder, so I painted the inside. We listened to the Royals on a transistor radio and drank colas from a little Styrofoam chest. You’d have to flick the crushed ice off the top of the cans before you popped them, then you’d hear that hiss, and the first taste would burn the back of your throat. It felt good. That’s the best day of my childhood.

I just wanted to see the tree house again. Then I’d turn around and drive back to Omaha. After all, I didn’t know what people lived there now. I should’ve known it would be gone, but what had happened to my old home? It looked gangrenous with the green paint flecking off the walls, hedges just barely holding on though the first heat wave hadn’t struck. Scrubby grass and a car with no wheels in the driveway. A big chunk of the tree house floor clung to that branch, the rest who knows where. Two of the hand steps were still nailed to the trunk at a skew. It looked like the oak was struck with blight.

The engine was ticking and I was just sitting there with my hands on the steering wheel when an old Pinto with a hole in the door pulled up. A black fellow in workout clothes got out and stumbled up the drive. He knocked, the door opened, and a white kid with bad posture and wild, frizzy hair popped his head out. They glad-handed each other, nonsense talk drifting over to my car. As the black fellow stepped into the house, the white guy scanned the street. It seemed like his gaze hesitated at me, and I looked down, trying to seem busy and natural.

I’m not stupid. I know they were doing some sort of drug deal. My old home had turned into a crack house. Maybe they were making meth in the kitchen. Apparently, it’s made with battery acid and other volatile stuff cooked up on the stove. The thought of my old home, a husk of what it had been, blowing up with those losers in it made me smile. Sort of. Then I thought of getting the tire iron from my trunk and smashing the windows out—I would love to hear their shouts, the sound of the windows falling in. Then I thought about ringing the doorbell and, when frizzy head opened, denting his face. But when the door really did open, the white guy was coming across the lawn at me, yelling, “What do you want? Why are you just sitting there watching?” I started the car and drove away.


Then Friday I get fired. That skinny little Dr. Gaskins—glasses, blustery, doesn’t look at you when he talks. He’s never done more than type papers and tell people what to do his whole life. He’s always intimidated me. Not like the previous director, Dr. Greathouse. He was loved by everybody. But he died. Had a stroke in the bathtub.

It was around lunchtime when I got called into Gaskins’ office. A half-eaten sandwich sat on a brown bag next to an apple with a missing bite. The blinds were drawn to keep the day out, and some elevator jazz was playing on his radio. I had a bad feeling. He leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, looked me up and down. “What’s this I hear about you playing pornographic films, Ross?”

My mouth went dry. It felt like when Harold Oxton shoved me against a brick wall in fifth grade until I cried. Oxton said, “Were you looking at me?” and I didn’t know what to say, because, truthfully, I had been watching him. In grade school I managed pretty well to be invisible, but this time I got caught. We were outside after school waiting for our bus and I had been sort of fascinated by his bigness, his huge, stupid slowness. The way his pasty face almost swallowed up his eyes, the way his hands and fingers seemed to be made of marshmallow. Or clay. He leaned into me and I could smell the onions they fry for lunchroom burgers and see what looked like whiskers on his chin although we were in grammar school. I couldn’t say, “Yeah, I was looking at you,” because then he’d call me a fag and belt me. But I also couldn’t say no, because we both knew that was a lie. So I stood there sniffling while he pounded me against the wall until he got bored and went away.

What could I say to Dr. Gaskins? I had shown them. But my motives were complicated, obscure even to me. I wanted to be in the projectionist’s booth where I had control, where the click of the sprockets going through their holes would calm me into a near-sleep. The bulb would flicker through celluloid, putting a tiny reflection on the polished window where moving images passed out and onto a screen.

That was shitty thing number two.


Before that job, I had been a projectionist at the old Sarpy Theatre. Close to ten years. I was hired on by Mr. Dady, a curmudgeon, a bent-backed smoker and cusser. People actually called him “Old Man Dady” and it was hard to imagine him as ever anything but old. He taught me to operate, clean, and maintain film projectors, assemble trailers and cue strips, thread reels, splice leaders, trace and repair mechanical or electrical problems with the projectors, change and set up two-, three-, and four-reel shows. More important, he taught me about good film. We were the only theater in town and played crap like Star Wars. In the late ’70s and ’80s people were only interested in fairytales. But Dady taught me about the Hollywood Renaissance which he said started with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and ended with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He taught me about the French New Wave directors like Truffaut and Godard, the pre-code movies of Dietrich and Garbo, the silent films of Lang, Chaplin, Eisenstein. In his home he had a 35 and 75 millimeter projector, Beta and VHS players. Every room in his old creaky Victorian had stacks of film cases and video tapes. Nights after the last screening at the Sarpy, he would invite me back to his home and play some film, chain-smoking and drinking bottles of High Life. He’d sit on a wooden stool next to the projector, empty bottles and a full ashtray crowded on a stool next to him, and comment on the cinematography, audio, mise-en-scène—he pronounced it mysen-scene. Always, at some point, he’d get real quiet, breath coming slow, and I’d think he’d fallen asleep. I’d look over my shoulder and the light from the screen would be flashing off his spectacles, backward images making his eyes invisible. After a second, he’d say, “Watch this part,” meaning Watch the movie, not me.

Mr. Dady’s been dead over ten years, passed away from a stroke. I’d be ashamed if he were alive to hear how I’d lost my job. For two decades at the University, I’d play the movies at one and three for the film classes, and then come down and stand in the back of the theater to make sure I’d got the sound and focus right. All those silhouettes watching the screen, hunched low in their seats, whispering to each other. I was like a ghost; no one turned around. That first time I played porn, though, I thought, We’ll see something now. But when I got to the lobby, there were half-a-dozen girls in shorts and tank-tops and a few broad-shouldered boys in backward baseball caps going in and I couldn’t breathe.

I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stared through the double doors at the theater entrance. Other kids went in. The day was hot and the sidewalk steamed and that theater door breathed. No one came out though. I went up to the projectionist booth and put on that day’s feature. My hands shook and I was sweating, and I sat there listening to the air conditioner and the film clicking until I felt normal.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a woman. When my wife, Beth, died, I didn’t know how to meet anyone else. I moved out of our house which seemed huge without her and into a little one-bedroom off Dodge. Sort of like Pop with Mom, I expected that Beth was the love of my life. One woman for me; I’d live alone like Pop had. Except Pop had me, and I had no one. Day after day seeing young girls on a college campus, year after year you get older and they stay the same. I don’t kid myself, I’m not good-looking, never have been. I’ve been chubby my whole life, would probably be called fat now. I’ve lost most of my hair, teeth turning yellow. Women don’t so much as find me unattractive, though, they just don’t see me.

Beth was a flower, delicate and precious. Sex with her was good. We would lie in the dark for hours and I could stare into her face. I loved touching her hair, kissing her lips and eyes, her cheeks. She’d stare at my nose or my chin and her breath would come quick, bottom lip trembling. She might say one word, like “Oh?” or my name, “Ross?” over and over like a question.

I met her at the Sarpy. She’d come to the last matinee every day after she got off work at Buethe and Policky Plant Nursery. Sometimes she’d buy the small box of popcorn. Usually, she’d sit in the back row and chew her nails, hunched over, staring at the screen. The summer E.T. was out she watched it over and over. She smelled like soil and sweat, and always wore a summer dress—simple with flowers, or maybe a stripe pattern—and sometimes her knees were dirty. Once there was a mark of thick dirt, like clay, on her forehead. I’d catch her in the lobby coming out and say, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, same time, same show.” She’d smile and look at the floor, say, “I don’t know,” but she’d always be back. The day she brought me a daisy, I knew. We went for walks. It took me a few weeks to touch her hand, but she didn’t pull away. We were married in the courthouse and the same day she moved in with me and Pop.

At our house, we always read the Omaha World-Herald because the Nebraska City paper was nothing to speak of. I wasn’t really looking for work, was happy living at home and working at the Sarpy. But occasionally I’d look in the want ads, and when I saw the ad for a projectionist at the New Media Center at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, I couldn’t resist. Didn’t think I’d get it, but after a week or two, I got a call from Dr. Greathouse who asked me to drive up and have an interview. I still didn’t think I’d get the job, but I guess me and Dr. Greathouse hit it off. He called me back and hired me. He was a nice fellow. Tall and stooped, always cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief and squinting at the ceiling. A bit of belly like he might enjoy an after-work beer just like anyone else. He shook my hand every time he saw me. “A good morning to you, Mr. Conway,” he’d boom out.

Beth and I were small-town kids, and I was a little worried about her moving to Omaha. She was a nervous little thing. Had episodes, and on a few occasions hurt herself. She was on three medications. When I asked her if she wanted to go, she stared at her feet like she often did, chewing her thumb. She was toeing a hole in the floor and I said we didn’t have to go if she didn’t want to. But she said, “It might be fun in Omaha,” and I couldn’t contain myself. I spun her around and she squealed in my ear.

We found a little house to rent in a not-bad sort of neighborhood. There were other white folk, and also blacks and Mexicans, which we weren’t used to, but it wasn’t bad. I guess what was bad, or different, for us was that people didn’t speak to you, didn’t even look at you when you walked to the street for the mail. They weren’t mean or rude, they just didn’t see you. I think it was worse for Beth. We’d try to go for a walk at dusk time, and she’d turn her face to my jacket when a car drove by blasting music. Packs of dogs would bark at us, and even though they didn’t bite, I could feel Beth quaking. Pretty soon, she didn’t want to go out, and I think she stopped looking for work. Which was okay by me because I was making do, and kind of wanted us to have a baby anyway. But I worried about her not having anything to do all day. She was letting the bushes and flowers in the yard go untended which wasn’t like her, and I could see the rose bush in the back was about to die. I hinted she might feel better if she got some air, and she’d nod and say something quiet, but when I got home the TV was always on—the most horrible racket, like talk shows where people screamed instead of talked, or soap operas with the fakest crying and hate and sex. Some days she wouldn’t get out of her nightgown, and her lips looked chewed, eyes moving from fluttery to glassy and back.

On my lunch break, I’d always get in my truck and drive down Dodge to the place where the strip malls are. There was a little sandwich shop and the employees got to know me. They’d have my roast beef with pickles, onions, and mustard already started when I came in, the cashier giving me a big smile and filling a large cup with ice and Pepsi, calling me by name, asking how my day was. One day on the ride down, I noticed a little flower shop had opened up, so I pulled over. I was going to get a plant for Beth, a daffodil because I liked those little yellow flowers that looked like bullhorns. There was one in a tiny pot I thought might look real nice in our kitchen window. On a whim, I asked the woman behind the counter if they were hiring. She said, yeah, for part-time, they hadn’t gotten around to placing an ad yet. I told her I knew someone with close to twenty years experience, someone patient and loving who never had a plant die on her. The lady told me to tell Beth to come in for an interview.

I was so excited, I could barely work the rest of the day. When I got home, the TV wasn’t on. The silence was unnatural—no one living and breathing could exist in it. I walked through the living room, and then through our bedroom, and when I saw the bathroom light on, I knew she was in there, and knew I didn’t want to go through that door.

She was in the bathtub, eyes closed and underwater, one tiny bubble stuck to her lips. The daffodil and clay pot hit the tile with a slap, the dirt splaying outward, the three yellow bulbs deflating. There was a razor blade on the side of the tub and its edge was thick with blood the color of rust. I put my hand into the cold water, beneath her head and lifted slowly, like I was afraid of waking her. But she had reached a stillness even people in their deepest sleeps can’t hope for, hands open and floating next to her, and I saw that she had made the incisions deep and lengthwise on her wrists. She had learned at sixteen the horizontal cut was easy to fix. The new wounds which were black and open and the old which were white and closed formed a sort of cross.


When I got fired on Friday, I thought, What now? I have no one, nowhere to go. I remembered a high school friend, Mathew, who used to jump trains. Why not just go down to the train yard and jump a car for wherever? Let fate decide. I could only imagine myself on that train, though, watching the country speed past, flat then mountainous. Eventually there’d be ocean and then what? Ride back?

After I was fired on Friday, I didn’t feel like I could do much except sit in my chair and drink beers. I was getting drunk. I wasn’t watching TV, not movies, not reading, not talking or eating, only drinking. After a while, though, I drank myself sober. I moved beyond drunkenness into some sort of clarity.

I left my apartment yesterday afternoon to get another twelve-pack and I noticed, I guess for the first time, there was a car parked out front, this big white Cadillac. The guy behind the wheel was just sitting there, smoking. He had curly hair and a bulging Adam’s apple, was wearing a business jacket, good-looking, I guess.

All the way to the store, that guy sitting there smoking was nudging my brain. Getting fired for showing pornography had made me feel ashamed and angry. But also a little paranoid. I thought there might be something wrong with me, and that maybe there were other people in the world who thought so too, and that’s why he was watching. So when I got back with my beer and a new pack of cigarettes, I stood out on the curb looking at him, the pavement outside his window littered with spent butts. When he looked at me, I spread my arms and shrugged, as if to say, What? What do you want? And you know what he did? He looked right through me. I was shaken, and went back inside. Every now and then I’d creep to the window over the kitchen sink and peer out. As the day got darker, he became a silhouette and a bobbing cigarette coal.

I understood then why that guy in Nebraska City had been so angry at me sitting in my car, watching him. A rage surged through me, and I slammed out of my apartment and stood on the curb again, facing the guy in the Cadillac. “What do you want with me?” I yelled. “Why are you just sitting there?” I don’t even know if he blinked. He looked at his lap like he might be writing something, then stared out the windshield, puffing on his cigarette, dismissing me, maybe not even noticing. I ran toward him and he still didn’t see me. But when I jumped on his hood, he saw. His eyes came open then, like maybe he’d realized something bad about himself and I saw him moving to open his door, even as I was stepping up on the roof. I jumped up and down on it a few times, hearing it dent beneath my shoes. It was a good sound.

I’ve seen enough movies to know he’d go for a gun even before he opened his jacket. I flattened him to the pavement, punching him and it felt good. Then something popped in his nose and there was blood, and it shocked me and I was up and huffing down the street. I looked over my shoulder and he was on his feet and he yelled, “Stop, police!” and raised a gun. There was a pop, quieter than you’d expect. I could feel him after me then, hear his shoes on the pavement. I ducked down a few alleys and then went through a split in a fence and into a stand of trees. It was thick in there, like a jungle. I could hear him wading after me, breaking brush; I must have hurt him, cause there’s no way I could have stayed ahead of a young fellow like that otherwise.

My foot caught a fallen branch or vine and I went face-first in the brush. My chest was aching like crazy and my breath coming fast, sweat stinging my eyes. He ran right past, shoe hitting the ground maybe a foot from my face. If he hadn’t been making so much noise, cussing and snapping branches, he would have heard me wheezing on the ground. I didn’t move even when I felt a bug crawling across my scalp. The night got dark and then quiet, but I still didn’t move. The crickets chirped, and my sweat turned cool and a breeze ran along the ground through the branches and vines trying to reach me.

I was shivering when I got home. My body ached. My hair was dried to my scalp, my skin itched. The Cadillac was gone. If not for the pile of butts on the street, I might have believed I imagined the whole thing. I came inside and brought the twelve-pack from the fridge, set it next to my chair which I turned to face the sliding glass door. The front door is heavy oak, about two inches thick with a deadbolt and chain. If anyone tries to come through it, I’ll hear him. But he won’t come through it. He’ll come through the sliding door and I’ll be watching for him. I’ve got a hammer. Its head rests on my thigh. It’s heavy and satisfying. When he steps to the door, the alley light will be behind him and he’ll be a silhouette, so flat I can walk right through him.


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

John Talbird

is the author of the chapbook A Modicum of Mankind. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Ambit, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and a frequent contributor to Film International. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives in New York City with his wife.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury