Downstairs at Modes
Alex John Hughes, February 29, 2012
Leslie stood on a tall wood cased speaker and smoked a cigarette. His belt looped around his neck, went over the bedroom door, and tied to the handle with a shoelace. He pulled a drag between his teeth, down his throat, to his lungs. I should quit, he thought.
From the doorway, he could see out the bathroom window. Behind the small apartment building, there was a row of decrepit houses. Old zoning laws in the neighborhood allowed them to keep pigs, chickens and horses. Through the bathroom window, Leslie watched a pig across the alley pushing dirt with its nose.
Linda cautiously approached Leslie’s apartment. The afternoon sun scorched the front patio. The stairs in front of Leslie’s door were black and thirstily absorbed the thin, dry heat. The flowers in his whisky barrel were cracked and tired, without water for days, and asking for the sweet sleep of decomposition.
Linda pursed her lips and sat on the short step in front of Leslie’s door, digging in her purse. She struck a match along the ground and brought the retreating flame to a cigarette held tight between her lips. The sun pressed on her cheek and bit on her pasty legs, bare below her jean shorts. The dry August nested in her eyes. She spit into the whiskey barrel and stuck the cigarette butt in between two of the dying flowers, turned, and knocked twice on the door.
Leslie’s eyes snapped open. The cigarette dangled carelessly between his lips, his eyes shifted between the doorframe, the bathroom window, his feet, the speaker, then down the hall, his head following their lead. The knock hit again—twice. The cigarette dropped from his lips, flipping in the air, cascading down his bare legs and landing purposefully between his toes.
“Mother Christ!” Leslie kicked his feet, trying to shake the searing cherry, knocking the speaker forward. He swung backwards and the bedroom door fell open. With his toes nearly touching the aged white carpet, Leslie tugged at the belt, reaching above his head for the top of the door. The cigarette sank, a thin line of smoke purposefully rising as the carpet fibers disintegrated.
“Les?” Linda stood on the balls of her feet and leaned towards the door, pressing against it her pink cheek and small ear. Holding her breath and looking upward with just her eyes, she drew her hand close, placing it flat on the front door.
Leslie slammed his hips hard against his bedroom door, trying to shake the belt loose on the other side. His cat ran into the room, rubbed his head and side against the door frame, and then lifted his tail, shaking his butt, mocking territorial spraying. Facing the wall across from Leslie, he lifted his foot, and began chewing and grooming the vacant area formerly his testicles.
Leslie’s toes felt the gentle tickle of the carpet fiber and he managed one foot behind him on the door, lifting his body enough to stop the choking. He reached up and grabbed the top. His arms, weak and tired, were unable to hold his body long and he dropped. The shoelace attached to the handle gave way with a snap and Leslie crashed to the ground, scaring his cat out of the room.
Leslie rolled on to his back, slid a finger under the belt, and exhaled. He stared at the ceiling, tears welling then sliding down his red cheeks. The cigarette smoldered on the carpet, just within reach. He stretched out his arm, grabbed the butt, and brought to his lips. Linda knocked again and Leslie pulled himself to his feet, lumbered down the hall, dragging his heels, and swung the front door open. He stood, pants-less, the belt dancing over his shoulder.
“Oh fuck,” Linda said, her body sinking. Leslie turned, leaving the door open, and stepped over his coffee table to sit on the love seat. Linda closed the door behind her and went in to the kitchen. She pushed a pile of molding dishes to one side of the sink and filled the teakettle.
Leslie stared at the coffee table, “I didn’t think you’d come,” he said, without looking up.
“I know.” The stove clicked three times then lit. She got out two mugs and leaned against the counter.
“Sorry,” he whispered. Undoing the belt and gingerly touching his distressed skin.
“It’s probably going to bruise,” Linda said, handing Leslie a cup of tea and sitting cross-legged on a big pink chair next to him. “Are you ok?” she begged.
“I guess,” he said, taking a drink, grimacing when he swallowed. “I didn’t really think it would work anyways.” Leslie’s cat hopped up next to him on the love seat and rested his head on his lap. Leslie scratched behind his ears and leaned back, drawing his feet off the ground and to his chest. “I’ve had that belt since I was 16. I guess I should get rid of it.”
“You don’t have to,” Linda replied. “Maybe just put it in your closet for a little bit.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Leslie took another drink and looked at Linda.
She smiled, weakly with her lips but bright with her eyes and shrugged. “Maybe,” and sipped her tea, bringing the mug to her mouth with both hands and blowing on it before she took a drink.