Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your celebratory host, Cheeseburger Brown.
My apologies for the delay this week. It feels good to be back. In the interim I took possession of a new used car (a bright yellow Mini Cooper), received my gift to myself for scoring a bonus from work (an iPod the size of a book of matches), and was called by name by my baby son ("Dada!") -- prizes all.
In contrast, I invite you to meet a man who desperately wants to reward himself but currently lacks the means. His name is Leslie, and his life is about to change.
Now, we begin our tale:
Leslie wanted to go faster, but the car was reluctant.
As he flattened his foot against the pedal the engine chortled unhappily, the sway from the unbalanced tires becoming violent enough to threaten to upset the wax-paper cups of Coca-Cola Leslie and his son had jammed into the shallow, sticky-bottomed cupholders on the dash.
"Jesus Dad, I'm going to puke," said his son, Angus.
"I'm just trying to get us there, alright?"
"Car's going to fall apart."
"Then we'll get out and walk. Until then, spare me the commentary."
Angus sneered and turned away from his father, eyes nailed at the brown and yellow and grey smears of the autumn countryside passing outside. He pushed white earbuds into his ears and proceeded to tap a frenetic tattoo against the armrest in time to whatever angst-ridden crap he was into listening to these days. Leslie tried to ignore the boy.
"There is a radio, you know. Why don't we put on something we can both listen to?" he asked finally after waving for Angus' attention, his nerves rubbed raw by the incessant finger-drumming.
"Because everything you like sucks," replied Angus loudly without removing his earbuds.
"That isn't a very civil way to behave."
"Maybe people would be more civil to you if you weren't always such an asshole," opined Angus. "There's one to grow on, Dad. Think about it."
"I don't know where we went wrong with you..."
"Oh not this crap again," grunted Angus, increasing the volume on his music player until the tinny, muted thumping and bleating noise became an insurmountable obstacle to any further discussion. He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.
Leslie swerved the car to the edge of the lane briefly and then tugged it back hard. Angus' head knocked against the glass with the inertia. "What the hell?" he bellowed.
"Smarten up," said Leslie darkly, eyes on the road.
"You don't like what people have to say so you try to cause an accident? What the hell, Dad? Jesus!"
"There's an expression," said Leslie tonelessly, "that says, 'don't bite the hand that feeds you.' You ever heard that before, Angus? Well, that's one to grow on. Think about it."
"You think about it," spat Angus.
"Leave me alone, you asshole."
Leslie pushed the car a little harder, the steering wheel wobbling under his white-knuckled hands. He had never wanted a cigarette so badly in his life, but pulling over to buy a pack was unthinkable after the drama that had erupted last week when Angus had been caught smoking.
As if reading his mind Angus said, "Have a smoke if you want to. I already know what a hypocrite you are."
"I don't smoke, Angus."
The teenager chuckled derisively and turned back to the window, casually rubbing at the corner of his eye with his middle finger.
The aging Taurus shimmied as Leslie let off the gas, realizing that his turn was approaching. He consulted the piece of note paper stuffed under the visor again and then squinted at the approaching signs. Twenty minutes later he decided he'd missed it and pulled over at a gas station to ask directions.
Behind the counter inside the cramped, snack-stuffed booth was a gum-chewing girl with a raccoon-like application of blue eyeliner, reading a dog-eared pulp with a half-naked corpse on the cover. "What pump youse at?" she drawled without looking up.
"Um, I'm looking for Baynard Trail North," said Leslie, peering at the folded scrap of notepaper on which he'd scrawled himself a map. "Do you know if that's west of here, or did I pass it back further east?"
She chewed her gum pensively. "Did you come from left or right?"
Leslie blinked. "Um, right now I'm going westbound." He pointed out the window to the highway.
"Yeah, no," she confirmed cryptically. "It's probably back right more."
"About how far?"
She shrugged. "Five minutes?"
"Okay, okay thanks," said Leslie, putting away his map. "Um, is there a washroom here I could use?"
She glanced at the till's readout with heavy lids and yawned ponderously, exposing her fillings. "Youse have to buy something before I'm allowed to give you the key."
"Fine," said Leslie absently, patting his pockets. "Whatever."
He bought a pack of DuMaurier Lights, the red box emblazoned with a graphic photograph of diseased lungs, and then let himself into the grimy washroom to take a leak. He lit one of the cigarettes while he peed, looking sideways into a greasy mirror, chagrined to see how haggard he looked -- pasty skin, thinning rust-coloured hair, watery eyes, softening jowls...
"Christ I look like shit," he mumbled around the cigarette.
The smoke made him feel dizzy and sick so he threw it in the toilet and washed his face until it turned pink. He still had to face two days alone with a son who hated him, sorting through the belongings of a dead uncle he could only recall ever having met once or twice -- at funerals or weddings.
His pocket rang. With difficulty he extracted a telephone with a cracked face and flipped it open. "Hello?" he said wearily, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Where are you?" asked his wife.
"Hi honey," said Leslie. "We're just on the highway still --"
"Shouldn't you be there already?"
"Well, I think we may have missed the turn-off but we're back on track --"
"Jesus, Les. I should've known. I told you to buy a new Perly's."
Leslie's jaw tightened. "My map is fine, Margaret. I just missed the turn, we're five minutes away now -- we're going to be there in five minutes, okay?"
"It's getting dark."
"Like I said, five minutes."
"I don't want you drinking in front of Angus. You know how you get."
"Shit Margaret, I think I can handle two nights without a consultant, okay? Lay off. Everything's fine. We'll be there in five minutes. I'll call you in the morning. Okay?"
She sniffed. "Don't overpack the car."
He hung up on her, pushing his way aggressively out of the washroom and tossing the key on the counter, startling the pulp-reading girl. As he stalked back to the car he wondered whether it were possible that he was, in fact, the most miserable loser in all the world.
Thus, he was not taken completely by surprise when the Taurus wouldn't start.
"Fuck!" yelled Leslie.
"Chill," recommended Angus dully.
Leslie leaned his head against the steering wheel and closed his eyes, flexing his hands against the grip rhythmically. Though he did not know precisely what had been willed to him by his uncle, he suspected, given his luck, that it would not turn out to be a new car or a pot of gold.
What Leslie really wanted was a magic bullet -- something that would sweep through his life and make everything right again.
He looked up slowly, blinking. "What is it, Angus?"
"You totally reek of cigarettes, hypocrite."