Here Is What You Do: Stories

Here Is What You Do: Stories

by Chris Dennis
Here Is What You Do: Stories

Here Is What You Do: Stories

by Chris Dennis


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A debut short story collection that explores the vulnerability, grit, and complex nature of our humanity from a new, vital queer voice. 
A yacht races to outrun a tsunami. A young man jailed on a drug charge forms a relationship with his cellmate that is by turns tender and brutal. A family buys a rural slaughterhouse, and tensions with their religious neighbors quickly escalate. A teen raised by his eccentric gay father, a Turkish immigrant, finds his life fractured by violence. A fictionalized Coretta Scott King, surveilled and harassed by the FBI, considers the costs of her life with her husband.

Here Is What You Do is a bravura, far-ranging collection, its stories linked by sorrow and latent hope, each one drilling toward its characters’ darkest emotional centers. In muscularly robust prose, with an unfailing eye for human drives and frailties, Chris Dennis captures the raw need, desire, cruelty, and promise that animate our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641290364
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Chris Dennis holds an MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared in Granta, West Branch, and New Stories from the Midwest.

Read an Excerpt

You wet your hair in the sink, then comb it back, slick as a new trash bag. You look nice. Okay, so your name is Ricky. You are twenty-three years old. People say you’re sweet. You say to them, “No, I’m not.” But you are. You know you are. You can’t help it. It’s like there’s a piece of candy hidden deep inside you and everyone is trying to find the easiest way to get it out.
     Your cellmate, Donald Budke, he’s like Rasputin, or Genghis Khan, maybe even Napoleon Bonaparte. No one tells Donald he’s sweet. His motives are serious, and he’s got acne scars that make him look like a criminal. He is a criminal. He’s ten years older than you, is on his fourth year of a fifteen-year sentence for manslaughter. You’re just a high school history teacher from southern Indiana, or at least you used to be.
     On the day you were arrested, the US Customs agent said, “What the hell are you doing, Ricky?” like he knew you or something, like he was really disappointed. “Who’s the vehicle registered to, Ricky?” You told him it was your grandmother’s. You gave him your driver’s license, your car keys. He asked you to sit in the back of his patrol car while he searched your trunk. You watched through the windshield, waiting for him to find the five cottage-cheese containers full of oxycodone you’d hidden beneath the spare tire. The sky was pink, like a drop of blood in a glass of water. You thought, Mexico is like an art film. You thought about the ten or so pills in the pocket of your pants, wished there was some way of keeping them so you could eat them later, in the event you were placed under arrest. You didn’t want to eat any of them right then. You were already as high as a butterfly. You fished the handful out of your jeans pocket and put two in your mouth anyway, waited for the spit to come, swallowed. The rest you chewed into a paste and spat onto the floorboard of the patrol car while the Customs agent rifled through your roadside emergency kit.
     The man came back and said, “You need to step out of the car, Ricky.”
     Before the Customs agent put you back in the car, he said, “Anything else hidden on your person becomes a felony inside the jail. Is there anything else, Ricky?” You stared at his ears, which were so big and red. They suited him, you thought.
     “No, sir,” you said. “Where else would I put it?”
     “Never mind,” he said, looking away.
     You could hardly hold your eyes open.
     Hours later inside the Customs office, another man—not much older than you, his eyes pale as pool water—told you to relax your hand while he rolled your fingers across an ink pad, pressing the fingertips onto a little index card with your name on it. The fingerprinting station was fascinating, and you told him so. You talked to him about Henry Faulds, a squat man, you said, who wore funny hats, credited with being the first person to use fingerprints for identification. “He used a greasy print left on a bottle of alcohol,” you said.
     “Well, all right then,” the man said.
     He put you in a small room by yourself, a concrete cell with pale green walls and no windows. You lay down on a metal bench that was bolted to the floor. You drifted in and out of the thing the pills made you feel. You thought about Horatio Nelson and the final moments in the battle of Cape St. Vincent—the fleets falling out of formation on the water, gun smoke rising toward the sails, Nelson reaching out to take the surrendering sword of San José. You slept, turning constantly on the hard bench, shaking the whole time from nervousness and the thought of never going home and the thought of not having any more pills to take. The lights went off, and then later came back on again. A man opened the door to say you could use the phone. You followed him into the racket of the booking office and called your nanny.
     “Good afternoon,” Nanny said when she answered the phone. You tried to explain about the pills but she kept saying, “Ricky, how did this happen? Should I come get you?” When you said you were in Texas she started to cry. That wasn’t the worst part.
     “Who’s done this to you? Should I call the police?” she asked. There was a loud crash on the other end of the phone, something breaking.
     “What was that, Nanny?”
     “I dropped a plate of food. Where’s the car, Ricky?”
     “I’m being arrested, Nanny. I have the car. I’ll bring it back.” And you meant it, without even realizing you wouldn’t be able to. She said she’d call the secretary at Woodrow Wilson High School to tell them you wouldn’t be at work on Monday. She told you not to worry about the dogs, she’d find someone else to walk them. This made you feel deserted, and damned. Nanny didn’t get it. “Can the neighbors do it?” you asked. Nanny said she had to go, to clean up the food.
     “Nanny! Nanny!” you said after she hung up.
The officer next to you reached for his Taser. You dropped to the floor and hid your face. “Jesus,” he said, before helping you up.
     After two weeks in the Webb County Jail, Judge Henry Travers of the eleventh circuit court sentenced you to one year at Lewis Unit in Woodville, Texas. “You’ll only serve four months,” your public defender said afterward.
     You spent eight days in a holding cell with a car thief named Teddy from Houston, then walked down a long, loud hall full of men yelling and watching as the guard took you to your room. Donald was sitting on the edge of the bunk, reading. The guard handed you your toiletries. The door made a shocking click-clicking noise when it closed. Donald moved his hair out of his eyes, held out his hand for you to shake.
     “You like Tom Clancy?” Donald asked, showing you the cover of his book.
     Most of the cells here are two-man rooms with bunk beds, like the one you’re in. There are three dormitories with around seventy men in each and people get moved all of the time but you’ve been in the two-man cell with Donald since your intake. Everywhere you turn there are black men. They huddle in the dorms, or else move through the block like schools of shimmering fish spotted by the rare scrawl of a white face. When the white men smile, their slim mouths are filled with rotten teeth. At first there is a lot of crying and vomiting and shaking, coming off the beautiful pain pills you’d grown, over the past year and a half, to love enormously. This is prison. Donald says he can’t find you pills in here and that anyone who can is looking for a hookup. Sometimes the old dudes will offer something boring at the canteen, Effexor or Ambien. These do not help.
     You look at yourself a lot in the mirror. You’re lanky—bony and gaunt. Your hair is too blond, the cut pathetically neat. Everyone in here seems taller than you. Even the shortest felon seems like a giant.
     Donald tells you that some of the other inmates have offered him money for the chance to get at you. “What do you mean?” you ask.
     “What do you call a blond with half a brain?” he asks.
     Two months in and already you are ashamed of so many things, things you had no idea a person could be ashamed of. One, for being educated, because most of the men here never made it through high school. You feel embarrassed around them, like Louis XVI must have felt after his arrest, surrounded by the working class in the Temple prison—not condescending but humiliated.
     Your cell has a toilet with a sink attached. The sink is attached to the top of the toilet where you think the tank should be. At first this made you uncomfortable about washing your hands. You’re used to it now. You have to straddle the toilet facing the tank or stand to the side of it when you brush your teeth, or wash, or get a drink. You push a button above the faucet and the water comes.
     The recreation room reminds you of the teachers’ lounge at Woodrow Wilson High. One of the dudes in there, he can hardly read the newspaper. When you first saw him, sitting with the paper open, sounding out the words to himself, you thought you’d help him. He was skipping the words he couldn’t figure out. You went over and pulled up a chair. “Can I have a look?” you said. This was before you knew how things worked.
     He said, “Get your own fucking paper.”
     “It’s nay-borhood,” you told him, “not neeg-borhood.”
     “I got it,” he said, sliding his chair away. “Now get the fuck off me you faggoty fuck.”
     “Sorry,” you said.
     Your lip was trembling. You couldn’t think of anything good to say. You got up and went to the other side of the room. You sat in one of the yellow vinyl lounge chairs next to the window, pretending to read People magazine. You sit there a lot now. You try not to make eye contact with anyone you suspect might be illiterate.
     You told Donald the story and he laughed. You pretended to laugh too, but also you were crying a little. You didn’t let Donald know.
     Donald has long, black hair. Many tattoos. His teeth aren’t perfect, but you’ve seen worse. There is something dim and monumental in his eyes—the irises gray as tombstones. He grew up in Iowa. You can hear it when he talks. He calls cola “pop,” and other things like that. This is not the only reason you like Donald but it has a lot to do with it. He says he’s in for manslaughter, but he won’t say anything else. You ask him what happened but instead he talks about his hair. “There were a few guys in here that used to fuck with me,” he says, “because I wouldn’t cut my hair and because sometimes I put it up in a ponytail. They used to say to me, ‘What’s under the ponytail, Donald, a horse’s ass?’ All I have to do now is give them the look.”
     He stands up really fast, like something bad has just happened. You’re not sure what’s going on. He gets right up in front of you like he’s considering the quickest way to crack open your face. “That’s what I do,” he says. “That’s the look I give them.” He starts laughing. “Works, don’t it?”
     You nod. Your pulse knocks inside your ears. “It does. For real.”
     He says now he tells them to shut the fuck up and they shut the fuck up. You’re sure you’re not capable of this.
     “Try it,” he says.
     “I don’t think so. I’ll just be cool. I’ll stay out of their way or else give them my dessert at dinner.”
     Donald points his finger at you. “Shut the fuck up!” he yells. He makes a fist, brings it up to your mouth and presses the knuckles against your lips. “Stop fucking talking right now!”
     “Why? What did I do wrong?” you say into his knuckles.
     “No, Ricky. Damn it. That’s what you’re supposed to say to them. I’m not telling you to shut the fuck up. Shit, dude, you’ve got to stop being such a giant pussy.” Donald shakes his head, like he can’t believe people like you exist. “I’m trying to help you,” he says. “You’re going to be in here a really long time. You’ve got to at least try.”
     You’ve been here two months now. “Yeah,” you say, “two more months.”
     “You’ll be lucky if they ever let you out,” Donald says. He picks up his book. Without Remorse, it’s called, and it must be serious because Donald will sometimes talk aloud while he’s reading, usually to cuss out the bad guys who he says are always corrupt cops. He lies down on the bed holding the book open in front of his face. “It’s gonna suck without you here, man.”

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