Fiction: Old Man Steve
By Travis Flatt
Old Man Steve loves pops and booms and sparkling gunpowder lights. This morning, when I went over, he was manic, building some sort of contraption to launch a dozen rockets and shells in his apartment’s parking lot. “Would I be back later?” he asked.
I lied, said, “Sure.” I hadn’t realized it was the Fourth of July.
I intend to spend the evening smoking weed (Steve’s my dealer) on the couch with my giant, loopy Dr. Seuss bong. I’ll watch French New Wave films, high, rapt, and studious, as if they teach me something about Art, Truth, or Beauty–Christ knows what. I know nothing about film, from a technical standpoint, and only watch this stuff to feel superior toward people like Old Man Steve.
Old Man Steve loves Jess, who’s my age, and this crush would be comic or sad, maybe both, if he wasn’t so goddamn earnest. Everything just is with Old Man Steve. He mentions her every time I visit. Once, he nearly came to blows with her boyfriend, Matt, who’s dangerous and unstable, for telling her he liked her skirt. I once saw Matt punch his Rottweiler for jumping on a couch. I haven’t gone back to Jess and Matt’s since.
Old Man Steve loves The Andy Griffith Show. Every time I walk over–he lives directly across the street–he’s watching it on some channel that seems to play it around the clock. I don’t think it’s a DVD, as I see nothing but a TV on his entertainment system, nor is it streaming, as it’s a box TV– just some private channel beamed only to Old Man Steve as a favor from above. Old Man Steve’s apartment is small and immaculate. He bakes peanut butter cookies which are lumpy, brown, and probably delicious but look like turds. He often offers them to me. I take them home and throw them away. Old Man Steve isn’t really my friend, but these days I spend more time talking to him than my real friends. I’m unemployed and smoke an eighth a day, burning through my savings and never leaving my house (except to see Steve).
My life, at the moment, is a hide out; I’m oppressed by an ignominious divorce.
She left me for a dude Old Man Steve’s age. I think a couple of years older, actually.
Old Man Steve hates Mexicans, or at least professes to. As best I can tell, he has no reason, of course, only headlines he’s fed by Facebook bots. I avoid the subject, only know this because I walked in on him ranting one day. I nodded, avoided eye contact, and waited for him to wear himself out. Something about a girl the FBI found murdered in Texas by illegal immigrants. Were I a better person, I’d attempt to set him straight, or at least debate with him, but it’s his home, and I know he’d throw a tantrum and kick me out. I’d lose my only reliable dealer, and it took me years to find Old Man Steve. I mean, he lives across the street.
In the early evening, I take an intermission, sit on my porch with a Budweiser to await the fireworks. If I walked across the street and around Old Man Steve’s apartment, I could share a beer with him, make him happy, but he’s not really my friend. I should call my dad. We used to buy fireworks on holidays. Even when I was nine, I found purchasing them more fun than shooting them. That got boring after a few minutes.
No rockets shoot at dark, only firefly light, so I stroll over to check on Steve. I expect to find him angry, his neighbors having shut down his plans. He doesn’t answer his door, so I rap a second time. His car’s there. He shouts, “Come in.” I find him slouched on his chair with a bloody nose. It’s swollen, grotesque–it’s obviously been broken before–multiple times, I’d wager. It’s notched at the tip and, for some reason. In my imagination, a stripper bit him. Turns out that tonight, he invited Jess over and Matt hit him with the concrete left hook he gave his dog. Old Man Steve should have known better, but I wouldn’t say this. Old Man Steve can’t make it through the story without tears. I can’t watch him cry; we’re not close enough. I tell him I’ll bring him a beer and we’ll smoke a bowl from his wooden pipe. He laughs and says he’s not sure if he can smoke in his condition.
Old Man Steve is “Old Man Steve” because my phone has other Steves; I haven’t talked to them in years. Turns out his Andy Griffiths are DVDs, the player is wedged vertical behind his TV in a way that makes me think “fire hazard.” I bring my copy of Breathless back with two tallboys. He talks incessantly while we watch, calls Jess vicious names, says he’s going to press charges against Matt. It’s not the first time he’s proposed to involve the police in his business, as if he forgets he’s a drug dealer.
Before the movie finishes, Old Man Steve is snoring. I tip toe to his freezer, look through the frozen dinners, and find an empty Stouffer’s lasagna full of ziploc bags. I take three but put one back, deciding that’s less conspicuous. At his door, I remember my DVD. I want him to forget me–forget my visit this evening.
Instead of going back to my place, I walk a few blocks down the sideway, watch the sky. At the fairgrounds, a few miles south, they’ve started the fireworks, and you can see them all over town.
I throw the stolen bags into a dumpster. The summer breeze smells like quitting. Fuck it–there comes a point every several years when I just decide I’m not depressed anymore, hope it sticks. Tomorrow sounds like a good day to start jogging again; I’ll buy a notepad and draw something; I’ll read a book.
Giddy, I delete Old Man Steve’s number.
Travis Flatt (he/him) is an epileptic teacher and actor living in Cookeville, Tennessee. His stories appear or are forthcoming in JMWW, Rejection Letters, HAD, Heavy Feather Review, and other places.