Bad Survivalist Short Story: “Along the South Shoreline” by Josie Tolin

 

LORNA SCANNED HER REFLECTION IN a full-length mirror, sucking in her stomach as she forced the button through the hole. The skirt hadn’t always fit this way. When she exhaled, her belly spilled over the waistband, and Lorna smacked her hands against her abdomen and watched the skin quiver like Jell-O.
Her mom called it a beer gut. Lorna called it womanhood, though the beer probably wasn’t helping. At school, Lorna wore too-big shirts that hung from her braless chest like drapes, neither remembering nor caring about her shape or size.
But that night, staring into the mirror in her childhood bedroom, she realized part of her had expected to see the silhouette of a twelve-year-old girl. It’s how Lorna pictured herself: slight, strong, and fast, so fast. The fastest kid on the playground. She remembered how it felt when she lapped her classmates in the gym class mile. She’d jog off the track to her sideways-smiling gym teacher, dewy-faced and barely panting.

Tonight, Lorna had a Tinder date with a guy she knew from high school. Back then, she’d still been sort of fast. She flopped onto her bed and swiped through Sal’s pictures for probably the millionth time. She couldn’t believe he’d gotten so muscular since she’d last seen him. Lorna paused at a photo of his half-naked body on the beach, football raised above his head, supported by biceps the size of her head. Who the hell takes these pictures, she wondered. Her own Tinder profile sported selfies only. It made more sense that way. After all, she was the only one who could get herself laid. She kept swiping. The pickings at home were slimmer than they’d been at school in Bloomington, but here, Lorna knew every couple of guys she matched with. She’d used old pictures on her profile so they’d recognize her, too.
Despite her familiarity with the town’s Tinder men, or maybe because of it, Lorna wasn’t so hot on the idea of moving back to Chesterton after graduation. She had one more semester to complete her sociology degree, few job prospects, and an aversion to applying to anything that might cage her in a cubicle, where her ass would surely balloon into a shelf-butt. If anything, she hoped being home for winter break would scare her into applying for jobs. It’d only been a day and she was already sick of the place; of her mom, her stepdad, her spitty little brother.

 

Across town, Sal checked his Tinder inbox. No new messages from Lorna. No new messages at all. He checked his email. One new message from his landlord telling him to leave the water dripping. BEWARE FROZEN PIPES, read the subject line. He guided the kitchen and bathroom faucets to a trickle. After a while, the sound made him have to pee, but Tony had been hogging the bathroom for the past half hour. Sal knocked on the door.
“Hurry the fuck up, man!” His tone was more aggressive than he’d intended, but he couldn’t help but feel kind of hostile. Tony was late on his rent for the third consecutive month.
Sal waited with his ear to the door. No response. The shower was running: more water. Sal shoved his bare feet into work boots and stomped out the door. He circled around to the back of the apartment complex, mouth-steam rising in puffs. The mucus in his nostrils froze almost instantly, poking at his cartilage like little icicles when he inhaled. As he unzipped his jeans, the whistle of an approaching train sounded behind him. Great, Sal thought. He peed anyway, re-zipping and traipsing back around the building, slipping and falling on the icy sidewalk. Sal rolled up the leg of his jeans to see a skinned knee, thatched in red.

 

Lorna checked the weather app on her phone. Negative twenty, with wind chill. She’d forgotten about lake effect ever since she’d moved downstate for school. Her pantyhose had torn at the kneecap, so she shimmied into a skirt long enough to cover the tear. Then she tugged at her eyelashes with the wand from an old tube of mascara on her nightstand; so old, she knew, it probably held a fifty-percent chance of pink-eye between its bristles. Her phone buzzed.
“FRANKLIN HOUSE tonight?” It was Missy, Lorna’s best friend since third grade, and the only friend she consistently saw when she was back home. “$1 tequila shots,” the next text read.
“Can’t. Date with Sal. From calculus. Senior year.”
“Really?! Sal was in our math class every year of high school, Lor. Not just senior year.”
“Oh. I only remember calculus. Must have blocked out the rest. LOL.”

 

Sal pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, leaning into the arm of the couch, remembering the Lorna he’d known in high school. Mr. Hatchet, their calculus teacher, had asked everyone to introduce themselves on the first day of senior year, even though they’d all known one another since kindergarten. “Tell us your name, and where you plan to go to college,” he’d instructed.
“I’m not sure,” Lorna had said when it was her turn.
“You don’t know if you’re going to college?” Mr. Hatchet asked.
“Oh, God no. Of course I’m going—I’m just not sure where.” She chuckled. “No offense, but I think I’d go crazy if I stayed here.”
Sal was sitting behind Lorna, staring at the crown of light reflected by her pin-straight hair.
“Sal?” Mr. Hatchet had nudged.
“Oh, right,” he’d said. “Um, I’m not sure.”
“About where you’re going?”
“About if I’m going.”
The class was silent. Mr. Hatchet folded his arms across his chest. He was a stumpy man with stumpy arms. But buff, Sal thought.
Lorna turned to Missy beside her. “That’d suck,” Lorna half-whispered into her friend’s ear, drawing out the ‘uh’ part. Heat creeped into Sal’s cheeks. He rested his chin on his knuckles, waiting for Mr. Hatchet to move on to the next student. Photos of a doughy toddler with wet, blue eyes punctuated the perimeter of his teacher desk. Next to the blackboard was a print of a pale woman in a sunhat and high-waisted bikini. She was smoking a cigarette on the beach. The colors were muted, save the red on the woman’s lips. JUST AROUND THE CORNER! ALONG THE SOUTH SHORELINE, read the pink scrawl, snaking across her breasts in loopy letters. The print was one of many in a series commissioned by the town to promote ecotourism. “Step into the past with us,” the women seemed to call from train stations and coffee shop corners, and, apparently, the walls of Mr. Hatchet’s classroom. “In small town America, we’re all stuck in the ’50s!”
“Purdue,” Donnie said from the back of the classroom.

 

Lorna collapsed back onto her bed with her phone in her hand. Hanging from little push pins above her headrest, medals clinked and jingled. A note from her track coach was pinned there, too. FOR LORNA: STRIDE ON!, it read. FORLORN-A, she thought as she read it upside down. Lorna missed her studio apartment in Bloomington, where her walls were bare and her desk was clear, not covered in kid clutter, not preserved by parents as a shrine of their daughter’s former life.
Lorna still had the one-track mind of a competitive athlete. When she’d entered Indiana University just shy of the walk-on cutoff for the cross-country team, she’d decided to go all in on her studies. Nights in Wells Library turned to mornings; her GPA soared. It was the structure Lorna craved, not necessarily the material. She’d hated running, but she’d loved her teammates and the pasta parties before big races. In college, ‘team’ had come to mean ‘study group,’ while ‘pasta party’ always involved the drunken purchase of a Top Ramen twelve-pack from 7-Eleven. She was intense as ever on these occasions, scrawling furiously in her notebook while groupmates checked their phones; eating three bowls of ramen in her 4 a.m. stupors.
Lorna texted with her arms outstretched like a zombie. “Fuck!” she yelled as her phone fell onto her face. She picked it up and straightened her arms again. “Be there in 30,” she messaged Sal. She screenshotted his Tinder pictures and sent them to Missy. “Different, right??” A shirtless poster of Channing Tatum in Step Up spanned the wall behind her dresser, his abs tanned and shiny. Lorna rolled onto her cheek to meet his beady eyes. Who was I?, she thought. Climbing onto the stool in front of her vanity, she peeled the tape back, tearing the poster a little as she took it down. She rolled it up and shoved it under her bed.

 

Sal’s phone vibrated. He paused his single-player game of Mario Kart and picked it up. Luigi and his purple motorcycle froze on the screen. Thirty minutes! Sal thought. AFTERMATH was just a short walk down the road, but he wanted to get there early to settle in, to build some liquid courage before Lorna arrived. He pulled too-short socks over too-long feet, stuffing them into blocky dress shoes. He glanced at his reflection in the TV, then back down at his shoes. I look like I’m going bowling, he thought. He shook his hair out of his face and tucked a cigarette behind his ear. His TV reflection stared back at him. He turned sideways to examine his new look. Douchebag, he thought, removing the cigarette and sliding it back into its Marlboro box on the coffee table. Faucets dripped. Damn it. “Tony!” Sal yelled.
“Gimme a sec, would you?” Tony’s voice cracked a bit, shriller than usual.
“Okay man, but it’s been like two hours. I just wanna put on some goddamn deodorant.”
Tony flung open the bathroom door, pushing past his roommate with eyes cast down. “Have fun on your date,” Tony snarled, disappearing into his bedroom. Sal closed the door and swiped his armpits with a stick of Old Spice. He looked down at the sink. A crumpled dollar bill was lying next to some white dust. Sal tore off a piece of toilet paper, wiping Tony’s cocaine debris into the wastebasket. Sal hated cocaine. He’d never tried it, but it’d ravaged his roommate’s bank account, and therefore, Sal’s credit: after all, the apartment was in Sal’s name.
Tony hadn’t always been a shit show. He’d been a community college student, then a community college dropout, then a line cook at EL CANTARITO until he got fired for doing lines in the freezer with a waitress named Ruby. Now, Tony was nothing. His dirty dishes had piled high in the sink and, oddly enough, this was the one thing Sal would never think to confront him about. Cooking was the one thing Tony was good at, and once in a while, Sal got a decent meal out of it.
Sal pulled a handle of Svedka from the freezer and poured himself a shot. He threw it back and rinsed the shot glass in the sink’s trickle. His throat stung. He felt two-percent warmer and one-percent more confident. After all, he was going on a date with Lorna. Pretty Lorna with the perky boobs and dainty wristlets that clinked like bells when she walked. She filled rooms that way. Sal snatched his apartment keys from the counter and twirled them around his finger, admiring their jingle.

 

Lorna trotted downstairs in knee-high boots, ponytail swinging like a metronome. Her stepbrother toddled across the carpet, clutching a Russian nesting doll. He wriggled his chunky torso up onto the couch, plucking the head of the biggest doll from its curvy, aproned body. His chubby fingers clawed at the new doll inside. He giggled and gurgled, tossing the wooden carcass onto the floor. Lorna’s stomach clenched. She’d been at her dad’s side when he’d purchased those dolls in Holland, Michigan, holding his hand at the register. The dolls had been a gift for Lorna—a guilt gift, she thought in hindsight; a gift fraught with divorce and shame. Little Lorna had stared for minutes at the elfish salesman in wooden shoes, wondering how his feet didn’t hurt.
Holland was a nice place. She hoped her dad was enjoying the winter up north. She made a mental note to call him on Christmas. Another doll rolled across the floor, stopping at Lorna’s shoes.
“Kev! You can’t just throw toys around. They’ll break, and you won’t be able to play with them anymore. Do you understand?” Lorna hated how much she sounded like her mom then, her voice rising an octave at the end of each sentence. Do you under-STAND, she mocked in her head. Suddenly she was so aware of her posture, hunched over her helpless brother like a supervillain as he sat curled below her, sucking away on his thumb. She recoiled. Kev removed his thumb from his mouth. A string of spit lingered a moment, bridging his tiny lip and hand.
Lorna’s mother and stepfather exploded through the door, arms full of brown paper bags from JEWEL-OSCO. “There’s my little Kev-bug,” Lorna’s mother said. She dropped her armload on the kitchen counter and grabbed the doughboy under his armpits, spinning him as he giggled. “Ring around the—oh, you look fancy, Lorna.” Her mom eyed her skirt. Lorna tugged at the hem.
“I’m going on a date.”
“With who?” asked her mom, carefully lowering the child to the carpet.
“Sal.” Lorna pointed at her stepfather. “He had us both in class. But that was before—”
“Oh!” Her stepfather’s eyes flickered. “I remember Sal. Yes, of course I do. Good student. Wanted to be an electrician?” He set the groceries down, scratching his balding head. “I’m not sure why.”
Lorna’s mother turned to her husband, resting a manicured hand on his chest. He was shorter than she was. Lorna hated herself for fixating on their height difference, but she did it anyway. “Maybe we can hire him to repair that light fixture in our bedroom.”
I can do that,” he replied as his wife flicked at the zipper of his jacket. Lorna looked away, rummaging through kitchen drawers for her car keys. Kev farted as he tried to clamber up onto the sofa, little knuckles going white as he gripped the cushions.

 

Sal swished the scotch in his cup, listening to the ice cubes clink against the glass. Above AFTERMATH’s tap was a print of a pointy lady in a puff-sleeved dress with hair shaped like a mushroom cap. The woman’s bare hand tugged at her gloved one. Behind her, a train slipped between two sand dunes. JUST AROUND THE CORNER! ALONG THE SOUTH SHORELINE read the flag that trailed a Goodyear blimp, the only object in the pastel-painted sky. Thank God the tourists steer clear in the winter, Sal thought. All the fucking college kids were back in town though, and everyone he’d graduated with was suddenly old enough to drink without a fake ID. Sal waved at some kids across the bar—their faces were vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place their names. He’d gone to high school with so many Marks and Tylers, it felt impossible to keep them all straight. The guys didn’t wave back.
Sal snatched an ice cube from his scotch and tossed it into his mouth, grinding it to shards with his molars. He swallowed, checking his phone. Lorna was five minutes late already. Sal wasn’t surprised; she’d always been late to calculus.
Tony stormed through the door, stomping the snow from his boots and shaking flakes from his puffy hair. Sal pounded the rest of his drink and rose from his seat.
“Tony! What’s—”
“Here.” Tony shoved a soggy envelope into Sal’s chest. Sal stepped back with his hands up. The envelope fell. Tony crouched to scoop it from the sticky floor, waving it in Sal’s face. “Here’s the fucking rent. Take the fucking rent. Three months’ worth. I’m all caught up now.” Sal took the envelope and slid it into his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said. “Look, dude, you could’ve waited till I got home. When you don’t pay your half, it fucks up my credit. That’s all.”
“Ween yew deen’t pee yeer heelf, eet feeks eep mee creedit,” Tony squeak-mocked. He staggered backwards, grabbing the bar. He grinned maniacally, flashing braces that made him look five years younger than he was.
“I’ll tell you what,” Sal said, watching his roommate sway from side to side, eyes closing. “Tony! Hey, Tony. Look, man, I’ll buy you a drink. Lorna’s not here yet. Come sit down. How’s that sound, man? Sound good?” His tone was pleading. “Hey, Tony, hey Tony, hey—” Sal tapped him on the cheek. “You’re making a f—”
Winding up like a pitcher, Tony slugged Sal in the nose. The bartenders gasped. Someone dropped a glass. It shattered on the floor next to Sal’s weird bowling shoes. He reached up to touch his nose, bloodying his fingertips. Then he grabbed Tony by the shoulders and shook him stupid, or tried to. But Tony wriggled his skinny-worm body from Sal’s grip, making a run for the door.
“Bye, fucker!” Tony yelled. He slammed the door. Sal touched his nose again, gingerly. He was angry at himself for not punching back. Tony was shorter than he was; skinnier too. Sal could’ve taken him. He hoped the people who’d witnessed their exchange understood that. A bartender handed him a napkin and a Ziploc bag of ice, patting him on the shoulder. Sal winced in his direction. He crumpled onto a barstool, pressing the ice against his face as wide-eyed patrons turned back to their drinks. He’d been working out a lot, but still, he felt so small.

 

“Kev!” Lorna called from the kitchen. “Kev, have you seen my car keys?” She was standing near the stove, holding her head. “Lost my keys, be there soon,” she messaged Sal, adding a ‘key’ emoji at the end of the sentence. Empty drawers jutted out like tongues all around her. Brown paper bags sat clustered on the countertop. Lorna’s mom and stepdad had cornered themselves near the refrigerator, opening and shutting it, arranging and rearranging the produce.
Kev blew a spit bubble, giggling when it popped. The nesting doll tumbled from his lap as he reached for the TV remote. Lorna crouched to retrieve it. Two hollow doll bodies lay beside her. She unscrewed the head of a squat lady in a tutu, reaching inside for an even smaller girl with blonde Princess Leia buns. More Nordic than Russian, Lorna observed as she unfastened its knobby top. She peered inside, tipping the body and dumping her car keys into her hand. Her stepbrother was chortling at a cartoon on TV, where an alien with a lazy eye and an overbite downed a series of purple potions. She hated Kev a little bit.
Lorna turned the key in the ignition of her Pontiac Grand Prix. The car coughed and sputtered while she sat there, picking at a stray thread on her glove, waiting for the racket to settle into an even groan. She wasn’t nervous about seeing Sal, but she wasn’t completely calm either. Something about being home and feeling different than she had when she’d known him—looking different, too. Her phone vibrated with a text from Missy. It was a bunch of eggplant emojis and a tongue shooting spittle from its tip. Nothing to respond to, really. Lorna set her phone in the passenger seat and pulled out of the driveway.
En route at last, Lorna cranked the volume dial on her car radio until it wouldn’t budge any further. “Hey, hey, hey!” a voice crackled through the speakers. “This is Lin Brehmer, and you’re listening to 93XRT, Chi-CAH-go’s Finest Rock.” Thank God he’s not dead yet, Lorna thought. When she was at school she sometimes had the nightmare that she’d come home from Bloomington, turn her car radio to 93.1, and listen to a joint obituary for all the deejays who’d raised her.
“P-p-p-penny on the chest!” she’d sing with her dad when he picked her up from elementary school in a collared shirt with his tie off-center. Lorna was wrong about the lyrics to pretty much everything, but her father didn’t care, never bothering to correct her the way some of her friends might’ve.
“Penn-ay!”
“Penn-ay”
“Penn-ay, Penn-ay on the chest!”
A bell clanged from a half-mile down the tracks as a train barreled towards the railroad crossing. “Fuck,” Lorna muttered, stepping on the gas. The railroad arm fell inches from her Grand Prix. She sighed, grabbing her phone to message Sal again. Now she was twenty minutes late, and he hadn’t responded to her last message. “Sorry I suck,” she typed, then deleted.
Lorna looked up. A thin body was moving along the tracks, tiptoeing atop the bullhead rails like a gymnast, or trying to. She watched the figure lose their balance, falling to their knees in the gravel before they shot back up, staggering backwards. She cranked her window open, pushing hard to unstick the icy pane. “Hey!” she called, waving her arms wildly. “It’s coming! The train!” Her breath rose in wisps, disappearing into frigid air. The train was thundering towards him now—a him, yes, a him. Lorna could discern some of his features, frizzy hair sticking up from his head, bobbing with his wobbly body. He looked like someone she’d gone to high school with. Math class, maybe? No, that couldn’t be it. His hunched posture made him look like an emaciated cocktail shrimp. Was he wearing braces? The guy was smiling now, like a lunatic, or an addict, or someone who wanted to die.
“MOVE!” Lorna screamed as loud as her lungs would let her. She laid on the horn, and the cars behind her followed suit.
Pausing, the man turned his head toward the cacophony. The train crashed into him, sending him flying into the grass near the dog park by the tracks. Dogs, big, small, and medium-sized, stood statue-still, tucking their tongues back into their mouths as their slack-jawed owners loosened their leash holds.
The color drained from Lorna’s face as she clutched the steering wheel. One hand maneuvered the car into drive as her foot stepped on the gas. Her muscles contracted independently, synapses firing. She U-turned out of line, driving home home home. She needed to be home. Home was where she needed to be.

 

Sal glared at himself in AFTERMATH’s dingy bathroom mirror, wetting a paper towel in the sink, holding it to his nose. He slid his now-bent glasses into his pocket. FUCK INDIANA, someone had written on the wall above the toilet in fat, bubbly letters. A woman’s handwriting, Sal thought. He checked his phone. Lorna had lost her keys. She’d be there soon. She’d be there soon, and he looked as wimpy as he’d felt in high school, nose dripping like a stupid faucet, tissue around his eye all red and swollen. To Lorna, he’d always be the quiet kid who didn’t go to college, the one who’d stayed home and played video games instead of attending commencement. Sal looked up at his reflection again. It was a silent conversation he had with himself. His arms were scarred and scraped from years of wire-cutting, glass-clearing, machine-quality-assuring. Electrician’s apprentice, he thought. That’s what I am and what I’ll be for the next few years.
When Sal was wiring the attic of a barely-built house over the summer, his foot had slipped and the ladder had fallen sort of gracefully, like the old oak tree behind his parents’ house had during a bad thunderstorm. He’d been left hanging there, just hanging, clutching the joist for dear life. His legs kicked and kicked; his hands were sweaty, slippery. He’d lost his grip on the wooden beam in less than half a minute, plummeting fifteen feet to the ground. A team of four electricians, real adult males, had circled him, a couple of them laughing. One of the guys extended a hand and helped him up. It hurt, yes, mentally more than physically. He felt like a toddler with no motor control, stuck in a man’s body.
He’d started crying, in front of a bunch of forty-year-old guys with sailor mouths and tattoos sleeves, the kind that snaked out of their shirts and up their forearms. He’d started fucking crying.
Sal slid his phone from his pocket as the door closed behind him. “Bad night,” he messaged Lorna. “Leaving AFTERMATH now. Try again next week? Before you go back to school?” He shoved his phone back into his pocket, zipping his jacket to his chin and pulling fat gloves onto his hands. Wind whipped his face, drying the residual blood as he speed-walked down the street, across the railroad tracks, past RED CUP CAFÉ, PEGGY SUE’S DINER, THE GREEN GARAGE, ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS. Street lamps lit the town’s central square, revealing nothing and no one, just ice and snow and Sal, who didn’t really notice his own body’s shaking and shivering.
Sal removed a glove and fumbled with his keys. He yanked the doorknob with icy hands, letting the door slam behind him. Then he crept carefully into the living room, scanning the apartment for Tony. It was dark and quiet without the thump of Tony’s stupid EDM music. The sinks dripped. Sal tiptoed past the bathroom, peeking into Tony’s bedroom. Nothing, no one. Good, Sal thought, falling onto his mattress and opening the Tinder app on his phone. Great, actually.

 

Lorna ran upstairs to her bedroom, locking the door. Her heart hadn’t beat this fast since her last cross-country race, senior year of high school. She’d lost pretty badly to someone she should’ve beaten, pushing so hard those last two-hundred meters, she’d actually peed herself. The boys’ team had laughed and pointed, and she’d lain face-down in the grass as her coach rubbed her back.
Lorna unzipped her skirt, watching her belly distend in the mirror. She stepped out of it, peeling off her pantyhose and pulling her sweater over her head, unlatching her bra, sliding out of her underwear. She stood there for a second, naked. She thought she looked like a kid then—in vulnerability, not in shape.
Lorna crawled into bed, feeling the comforter’s cool against her skin. She plugged her lava lamp into the wall behind her nightstand, watching the goo glop from top to bottom, bottom to top. She pulled her knees to her chest, cradling them. We’re like Russian nesting dolls, Lorna thought. When we’re twenty-two we’re also twenty-one and twenty and nineteen and eighteen. Lorna was seventeen, she was sixteen. She was fifteen fourteen thirteen. She was twelve.

 

 

Josie Tolin is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. An Assistant Editor for Fiction Writers Review, she’s published stories in Jersey Devil Press and Schuylkill Valley Journal. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Image: 100awesomethings.com

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