Cormorants

Emily showed me her revolver in the car outside Mickey’s apartment. A passing car’s headlights caught the lip of the muzzle as she handed it to me handle up. “Don’t worry,” she said as I stared at the weapon. “It’s not armed.” She meant loaded. Emily didn’t know that I grew up around guns. I slipped my finger onto the trigger. The worn walnut grip reminded me of my brother’s old Ruger.

“Where’d you get it?” I asked, handing it back.

“It was my granddad’s.”

I waited for a further explanation but it never came. Outside, a group of girls squealed past the car, their high heels chopping across the sidewalk like a cutting board. Emily stashed the gun back in her purse and checked her hair one last time in the visor window. I didn’t bother to look at mine. “Let’s go.”

My seatbelt was still buckled. “You’re going to bring it with you?”

“There aren’t any bullets, remember? Besides, I want to show Mickey,” and before I could argue, she was out the door.

♦◊♦

I met Mickey and Emily at the job fair seven months ago. We’d all attended the same university and graduated the same year, but were never acquainted with each other. None of our studies had been remotely related. Mickey insisted that he saw me once, smoking a cigarette outside the Humanities building. I didn’t believe him. It might have been true, but his recollection was so uneventful and nonspecific that it could just as easily have been fabricated.

Mickey was the only one of us who still lived near campus. His apartment complex was sandwiched between an abandoned fraternity house and a Lutheran church. The kids in the neighborhood called it the Tree House due to the cluster of Coast Live Oaks corralled together in the enclosed courtyard. The trunks were scarred with names, dates, and curses. One night, the three of us had drunkenly searched the trees for the earliest recorded year, tracing the cicatrix with our fingers in the dark. The earliest we found was 1978, the same year my brother was born.

The party was well underway when we arrived. Last weekend, Mickey had told us that it was going to be a small event, “just for the homies.” Neither of us had believed him. Mickey liked large gatherings, the bigger, the better, with him at the apex. It took us 20 minutes to shoulder through the crowd of sweating bodies trafficking between the doorway and the kitchen where they kept the alcohol. Emily finally found him in his bedroom, surrounded by kids with their shot glasses raised, chanting his name. It felt very primitive, the tribesmen toasting their chieftain in his den. We watched Mickey toss back the shot and roar above the growling bass in the living room.

After this ritual, the crowd quickly dispersed to the party outside, and I watched Emily make her way towards him, cradling her purse like a newborn. He ducked between two guys making their way to the door, where I was standing. “Hi you,” Mickey grinned, hugging me. He smelled like sweat and cheap vodka. “Wasn’t sure if you were going to make it.”

“It was Emily’s idea,” I told him, breaking our embrace. “I had better things to do.”

“Don’t be cruel,” he chided and glanced behind him. “Hey Emily. Didn’t see you there.”

It was obvious he was lying, but I could tell the way Emily looked at him that she’d already forgiven him. “Hey, Mick.” She had taken a seat on his bed. A mirror sat next to her purse with a credit card and a dollar bill. “Can I make a line?”

“Cut me one too,” he turned his attention back to me. “You want one, Vy?”

I declined. Drugs held no attraction for me. “I thought you were going to lay off the coke until you found a job.”

He shrugged. “Justin got me the eight-ball. I can’t turn down a gift.” Justin was his roommate, a junior who had more money than he knew what to do with. He and Mickey had that in common. “Anyway, my folks are happy enough that I’m looking. They know how difficult the job market is right now.”

I thought of his father, a partner at one of the top law firms in the west coast, and his mother, an established pediatrician. I doubted they’d ever stood in the unemployment line or received a foreclosure notice. Behind him, Emily was spreading George Washington on top of a small pile of cocaine before ironing it out with Mickey’s MasterCard. “I’m going to get a drink,” I said, turning to leave.

“I have a handle of vodka here.” He snaked an arm around my waist. Mickey’s passes had become a joke between us, but there was an element of sincerity in his physical familiarity that made me a little leery. Emily ignored it because she didn’t have a choice. I did.

I removed his arm. “I’m a whiskey girl. You know that.”

“Vy, I don’t know anything about you.”

I looked at him. Beyond the superficial details, it was true, and I preferred it that way. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

♦◊♦

Someone had detached both fire alarms in the apartment. Smoke spilled out of the kitchen in steady plumes despite the fact that the apartments in Westwood had a strict no smoking policy. There were girls sitting on the kitchen counters, punctuating their wilting Marlboro Lights on the ceramic tiles. I watched a frat guy pour two fingers of whiskey into a Dixie cup and asked him to pass it over. He took his time looking at me: tatty sneakers, a stained collared shirt, black work slacks, and no makeup. “Here.” Frat Guy smirked. “Looks like you need it.”

“Who am I going to impress, you?” I smirked back, taking the handle of Jim Bean. “Asshole.”

His glazed eyes refocused. “What did you to say to me?” Frat Guy bristled, his slicked up hair resembling porcupine quills. Before the situation could escalate, Justin stepped between us, seemingly out of nowhere. “Back off, Alex. She’s a friend.”

“She started it,” he said. Had I been that infantile as an undergrad?

Justin handed him a glass of water. “Go deejay for me. Marion has been putting that damn Kanye song on loop for the last 20 minutes.”

“Sure, Justin.” Frat Guy turned to me and mumbled a barely intelligible apology before leaving. There was hope for that one yet.

“Sorry about that,” Justin said. “Alex is a good guy. He just doesn’t know how to hold his drink.”

“Maybe he shouldn’t be drinking then,” I told him.

“Hey, practice makes perfect, right? I won’t abide any quitters in this house.” He smiled. I secretly adored his dimples. “So how’s life? Still serving overpriced cappuccinos?”

“Same game, different day.” I reached behind him to grab a chaser. He didn’t move and we brushed.

“You never told me which coffeehouse you worked at.”

I hid my eyes in my cup. If Mickey didn’t know me, Justin had even less to work with. I reminded myself that he was four years younger than me, at that precarious stage in life where he was still figuring out who he wanted and what he wanted. This unspoken attraction I suspected would not help either of us.

Justin changed the subject. “Where’s my roomie?”

“In the room with Emily,” I said, feeling secure again now that we’d entered familiar territory. “They’re enjoying your gift.”

“What gift?”

I leaned over to whisper in his ear. “The coke.”

Something changed in his face. It looked like anger. And concern. “I didn’t get any coke. I don’t touch the stuff.”

“Oh.”

“Mickey needs to slow down.” Justin shook his head. “He still hasn’t paid last month’s rent. All he ever does is drink, watch TV and get high.”

“He said he’s been applying for jobs,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I was defending him.

“That’s bullshit. The man lies through his teeth.”

I should have known better.

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About Lam Pham

Lam Pham was born in Midland, Texas and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2008. His fiction has or will appear in several publications including Foundling Review, Fractured West, escarp, Orion headless, and more. He blogs here.

Comments

  1. Beautiful story. I love the ending, does she or doesn’t she? Very well written, great imagery. Thank you.

  2. beautiful work!

  3. Great piece of writing, really nicely done.

  4. Michelle says:

    Beautiful story, very gripping.

    I could see it all happening. excellent writer.

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