by Anthony V. Toscano
Steven Stein built bunk beds and bookshelves out of a pile of scrap lumber that he stole from a bay-side construction site under cover of a blue moon in late July. The two-by-fours and one-by-threes smelled a lot like dead sardines, so Steven Stein washed off the dried cake of oily mud as best he could with a high-pressure hose, a paint scraper and a wad of steel wool. Later, two coats of shellac would serve to mask all but a faint trace of lingering fish odor and add a blond sheen that Steven Stein would polish with lemon oil on Saturday mornings before he dressed for prayer service.
Steven Stein paid for the nails, saw and hammer that he needed for the project, but not as much as he might have paid if the salesman at Lucky Locatelli’s Hardware Emporium had not been his ex-wife’s latest lover. This same salesman, a hairy young Polish guy named Bernie Resnick, who wore steel-tipped work boots and cutoff jeans that rode up his butt and lent him an air of inadvertent mystery, once told Steven Stein that he thought they shared a common dependency on cheap wood and domineering women.
“The only thing I don’t understand,” said Bernie Resnick as he punched his fat fingers at the register keys, “is why Marion left you and not the other way around.”
“I wanted to know that she was happy before I let her down,” said Steven Stein. “She never got happy, until she met you.”
The two men chuckled, winked and gave each other the high sign. Bernie Resnick slipped the new tools into a brown paper bag with hemp handles and the letters LL printed on both sides, tugged at the seam that threatened the most intimate part of his ass, and slapped Steven Stein on the shoulder in the affectionate manner familiar to amateur carpenters and henpecked husbands. Through the Emporium’s wide plate-glass window, he watched Steven Stein leave the store, toss the tools onto the front seat of a white GMC and screech his way out of the parking lot.
When the bunk beds were finished, Steven Stein adopted a stringy kid named Aaron, with whom he claimed to fall in love in a paternalistic way after Marion left and Steven Stein decided to become a permissive father instead of a submissive husband. He taught Aaron to recite his prayers each night before retiring, and then he planted the kid in the top bunk.
Steven Stein claimed the bottom bunk as his own and took up cliff-side bird watching as a way of life. He continued to attend Saturday services, and once in a while he built another birdhouse with the tools he bought at Locatelli’s and the scrap lumber he stole from beside the bay; but mostly he just settled in to the inheritance that his father Ruben left him and his ex-wife Marion coveted, ate packaged cheese blintzes for supper, mumbled prayers with the kid and slept with the vague aroma of dead sardines and lemon oil to remind him of the importance of hard work and the benefits of thrifty habits.
Steven Stein considered himself a happy man. He never complained about his unfortunate brush with marriage, he ate well and kosher, and the kid wasn’t all that bad once you got over the splatter of pimple puss on the bathroom mirror and the hormonal attitude toward life in general.
The kid, Aaron Stein, nee Malamud, was a fourteen-year-old fan of true-crime novellas, second-hand pornographic magazines and horror movies that featured hatchets and chain saws as leading characters. Most mornings he refused to brush his teeth, although he spent about an hour combing his hair, exploring the nether land of sexual appetite behind a locked bathroom door and checking his face for the promise of redemption.
“Boys will be boys,” said Steven Stein to the cliff-side birds he photographed and to the memories he liked to imagine were his own.
“The kid’s a damned brat,” said Bernie Resnick to Marion. “If you’re not glad that you married me, you should at least be grateful that you left Steven Stein before he built the bunk beds and became a permissive father.”
Marion said that she agreed, and then she helped Bernie Resnick once again to pull the seam from the crack of his ass.
“You’re such a sexy carpenter,” said Marion, “but if you ever build bunk beds we’re through.”
FADE TO SUCKING SOUNDS AND TANTRIC MOANS
On a Saturday evening in early September, Steven Stein invited his only friends over to smoke some Thai stick, inspect the bunk beds and lie about how much they adored the stringy kid, Aaron, and admired the fish-infested two-by-fours.
Marion wore a sheer summer dress and more than a hint of patchouli oil. Bernie Resnick wore his cutoff jeans and steel-tipped work boots. Aaron wore pancake makeup to disguise the facial scars, and Steven Stein wore an apron with the letters LL emblazoned on the front.
Supper proved itself an almost uneventful affair (if not for the Thai stick, no one but Steven Stein would have dared to eat at all). Steven Stein had become a vegetarian once he discovered that he liked the taste of packaged cheese blintzes and overcooked cauliflower. The blintzes gave Steven Stein a protuberant belly, and the cauliflower gave him gas; but neither of these conditions stopped Marion from eyeing the beanbag chair in the corner of the living room and wondering how it might have been had she waited long enough for Ruben Stein to suffer his second heart attack.
When they’d finished eating, all four friends decided to occupy the bunk beds and mumble prayers of thanks for their good fortune. Steven Stein, Bernie Resnick and Marion snuggled with each other inside the shadows of the bottom bunk. The kid, Aaron, insisted on climbing to the top, where he said he belonged.
“You’re not my father, and this is weird,” Aaron whined at Steven Stein.
“Boys will be boys,” said Steven Stein as he took off his apron and crawled into bed.
“The kid’s a damned brat,” whispered Bernie Resnick.
“You’re such sexy carpenters,” cooed Marion as she pulled the seam from Bernie Resnick’s butt with one hand and tickled Steven Stein’s belly with the other.
That night, all three residents of the bottom bunk died in their sleep, victims of a sudden collapse of two-by-fours and one-by-threes. Some say that Lucky Locatelli bought his nails on the black market, while others insist that the stringy kid, Aaron, rocked the top bunk and then enjoyed his inheritance.
Police photographs reveal that the homemade bookshelves were bare, but for a few tattered magazines and a pornographic novella about cliff-side birds and beanbag memories.