Playing Clark Parker’s best friend in the school play was one thing, but finding the nerve to socialize with him at the cast party is quite another. And he’s coming this way…
My latest entry in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge is a 995-word romance. As a romance writer, I am of course much more familiar with the genre than I’ve ever been with, say, horror, which made this story harder to write than the first two in this competition because there was pressure for it to be perfect. But of course that pressure came mostly from myself, so I set it aside, imagined the Cutest Boy in School, and wrote the best Very Short Romance that I had in me this day. And threw in a little Music Man, just to be on the safe side.
Our group was given Romance for a genre, a tugboat for a location, and a map for an object. I’m gunning for big points on creative use of prompts… 😉 Enjoy
Clark Parker Bums a Smoke
Where they got the idea to use a maritime motif for the playground, I’ll never know. We’re a hundred and eighty miles from the nearest navigable river, six hundred from the coast; hell, they even drain the pool for winter and half the spring. And it’s not like it’s a pirate ship or the Love Boat. No, the centerpiece of Agnes Schmidlap Park is about two-thirds of a wood-beam tugboat plying the gravel, two sun-baked old tires hanging off the side. You know, for authenticity. Some mayor who owned the meatpacking plant fifty years ago probably wanted kids to grow up thinking hard work was the ultimate fun. Help tug our town to success! Too bad they shut the plant down like ten years ago. God, I can’t wait to graduate and get out of here.
Six weeks to go. Meanwhile, tonight’s the “cast party” for The Music Man, which means a keg in the park and enough teenager tequila barf to float this tugboat. It was a fun show and all, but I’ve been playing Marcellus to Clark Parker’s Harold Hill since rehearsals started in February; if I have to spend five more minutes within arm’s length of his shimmery hair without running my fingers through it, I’m worried the effort’ll break my elbow. Here on the prow of the tug, I can at least lust after him from afar, without his goody two-shoes “concern” about me smoking.
Except now he’s walking over here. And he’s carrying two big red cups full of beer. Is one for me? Do I hide mine? Chug it? Marcellus had lines to bounce off Harold; I have fuck-all to say to Clark Parker.
“Hey.” OK, that wasn’t so hard.
He offers me a cup. “You need a beer?”
Mine’s full. “Yeah. Thanks.”
I flick my butt into the night, hoping he won’t start up.
“Can I bum one?”
Look who’s full of surprises. “You don’t smoke.”
“I do all kinds of stuff.” Did Clark Parker just wink at me? That’s definitely worth a cigarette.
I light him up. He coughs like maybe it’s his first time. I make a point not to notice. He gags out a “Thanks.” I light mine, smile. No sweat.
We talk. Well, we try. Good show. Nice night. Hooray for graduation.
“Where you gonna go?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, to college.”
“I’m not going to college.”
“What are you gonna do?”
He shrugs. “My mom needs help around the restaurant. I can cook, I can bus…”
“But…” You’re a hot jock and a brain. How do I phrase that, exactly?
He shrugs again. “No money for college. My mom says she can afford to have me work for her for free, but just barely.” He smiles. Ain’t she a scream? I chuckle cuz I’m supposed to.
“’But’ what? My ‘potential’? Yeah, I know all about it.” He takes a drag, Mister Nonchalant. Nearly hacks himself to death.
Are we bonding? More likely it’s the beer. “It’s just…” Can I say this to him? “I just kinda figured, guy like you, your road’d be mapped out. College, career, kids. You’re smart, you’re good-lookin’…” So apparently I’m coming out to Clark Parker.
“You ever looked at the map they give a guy like me in a town like this? It’s pretty much a laminated placemat like we give kids at the restaurant. Big fish, small pond, maybe two roads on it, both of ‘em goin’ nowhere. I don’t get the World Atlas like you.”
“Me? How do you figure?”
He turns to face me, puts his hands on my thighs. The way I’m sitting (legs splayed), the way he’s standing (now snug between them), I reevaluate; maybe this tugboat wasn’t such a terrible idea.
“Please,” he says. “What, just cuz you’re fat, you think you don’t have options? You’re not talented? You’re not hot? Dude, you can do whatever you want with your life.”
Did Clark Parker just call me ‘fat’?
Wait—did Clark Parker just call me ‘talented’?
“You think I’m…?”
“Talented?” He shrugs. “Yeah, kinda.”
I open my mouth. I close it. I feel like I should probably say something, but what if the sound of my voice startles me awake? I’ve been dreaming about Clark Parker for months, none of ‘em anywhere near this good.
He dips his chin, Aw shucks, then looks me in the eye. Even in the dark, the amber flecks in his deep browns twinkle like science-fair geodes. Up goes an eyebrow when he repeats the word I can’t get my mouth to form. “Hot?”
I nod. Breathing is for chumps. He reaches around my waist. Sucking in my gut’s a reflex, but when he kisses me, I forget all about it and it melts back out. He tastes like beer and smoke and like maybe he’s never heard of mouthwash, and I’ve known I was gay since I was like thirteen and this is my first kiss and there’s nothing—not one thing—in the world right now besides Clark Parker and me and maybe this ridiculous tugboat that I know would pull us downriver and set us adrift on Happily Ever After if it wasn’t beached on a Utah playground.
Eventually we come up for air. For the first time since ever, two hundred seventy-five pounds feels like nothing, and I pity all the suckers who’re still gravity’s unsuspecting slaves. Clark Parker’s face is at once all I’ve ever known and a beguiling portrait of mystery. As I ogle it, he takes a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, smoothes it on my thigh.
“You want a map?” It’s a program from the play, folded open to the page our pictures are on. “Go out in the world. Set it on fire.” He finds a pencil. “You ever want to come home?” He draws a line, makes a little arrow. From my picture to his.
“Here’s your map.”