“Hey. What do you make of this?”
“What do you make of this?”
“What!” Bobby shook the phone and moved it three inches closer to Dale’s nose. “Do you make of this!”
“Dude,” said Dale, leaning away, “there’s nothing there!”
“Oh.” Bobby looked at the blank screen. “It went to sleep.” He tapped and swiped the phone’s screen, arranged it, scrolled it. “What,” he said, thrusting it once more in Dale’s face, “do you make of this?”
They were waiting on a bench for the Blue bus at the corner of Rose and Elm. The Red bus stop at Oak and Hyacinth was two blocks closer to the apartment, and the Red bus would have dropped them closer to their destination, but Oak and Hyacinth was the stop that Bobby’s ex, Tia, used, and they couldn’t run the risk of bumping into her.
Dale crossed and uncrossed his eyes, trying to get the phone into focus. It didn’t help that Bobby couldn’t hold it steady. His hands jittered because it was almost freezing, the wind was blowing, and Bobby wore no coat. Bobby owned no coat. He wore ratty jeans and a black t-shirt with a red Chinese character on it which he claimed meant, “Defiance.” Dale asked a Taiwanese exchange student about it once, and he said that it didn’t mean anything as far as he could tell, though it did sort of resemble “Busy Intersection.” Bobby did wear a thick, knit cap, but that was not a concession to the weather; he always wore it. The word “Dickhead” was roughly hand-embroidered on the front, a parting shot from Cynthia, the ex who followed Tia. Bobby wore it like a badge of honor.
Dale finally managed to read the small line of text in the little gray speech bubble. “What’s that about?” he asked.
Bobby flopped back on the bench and looked at the cloudy sky in exasperation. “That’s what I’m asking you!” he said. “That’s what ‘What do you make of this’ means!”
Dale shrugged. He hunched his shoulders and tried to pull his head down inside his coat. Dale most definitely owned a coat: a big one with a fuzzy wool collar. The first day the temperature dipped below 50 he put it on, along with all the shirts he could lay his hands on, the thickest pants he owned, and as many socks as he could jam into his shoes and still leave room for his feet. He wore a hat almost as ugly as Bobby’s, but Dale’s wasn’t ironic; it was warm.
Bobby stared at the phone and shook his head. “What do you think it means?” he said.
Dale sighed heavily and looked down the street for the approaching bus. No luck. He would probably be late for class. Bobby had already ditched one this morning. He was going to campus just to hang out.
“Well, what did you say to her? I mean, what’s this in answer to?”
“I don’t know. Nothing!” said Bobby. He slapped at the screen to scroll up to his previous message. “I just said, ‘hey. tonight. tunes/feed?”
“Tunes?” said Dale. “Feed?”
“Yeah, you know. Like, see a band, get something to eat. ‘Wanna grab a burger or something?’ Whatever. And she comes back with this.” He shook his head and blew out a steamy breath. “I don’t know about this chick. She’s weird.”
Dale didn’t think Kay was weird. Tia, now: She had been weird. She called herself a video artist and roamed around looking for roadkill animals so she could make time lapse movies of them decaying. Still… Interesting. Nice enough in her way. Until the end, anyway, and then, oh boy. Dale had gotten caught in the crossfire, as Bobby would hide and refuse to talk to her and he, Dale, had to deal with the confusion and the anger. A lot of anger, and he soon found that he had become a handy surrogate target for it.
“Screw it,” said Bobby. He deftly pulled both arms inside his t-shirt and huddled up on the bench. “I won’t reply. Screw it.” There were holes in Bobby’s shirt, and Dale noticed that he had some fairly large holes in his sneakers, too.
“Your mom called me last night,” said Dale. “I forgot to tell you.”
“Yeah?” said Bobby.
“She asked me if you needed anything.”
Bobby laughed. “Yeah?” He smiled his blinding smile. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her you were OK. I should have told her you need a new pair of shoes.”
“Should have told her I need some MUN KNEE! ‘Cuz I do!” He laughed again, and then tucked his chin to his chest, pushed his phone up through the neck of his t-shirt and squinted at it. “Seriously, man. What does this even mean?”
Dale looked longingly up the street once more, pulled a ragged Kleenex out of his pocket and jammed it under his nose. Now Cynthia, the one before Kay… She was really sweet. Dale had liked her a lot. They traded jokes, and she was always really nice to him. He saw her now from time to time in hallways here and there. She was a computer science major and he was engineering, so they overlapped. But he couldn’t bring himself to try to talk to her. When she had found some of Kay’s things in their apartment, Bobby told her that Kay was Dale’s new girlfriend. Put on the spot like that, he had to back Bobby up, didn’t he? When it all came out anyway, that made him an accomplice.
“And hey,” said Bobby, “speaking of MUN KNEE… Can you slip me a few bucks? I got a check coming Monday, so…” His phone bobbled on his fingertips. “It must be some kind of auto-correct thing.”
“Yeah, sure,” Dale mumbled, either to the latter comment or the request for money or both.
He didn’t like talking to Bobby’s mom, but more and more she called him and didn’t bother trying to call Bobby. He thought of her standing on the porch when he went to pick Bobby up to drive off to college. While Bobby was shoving his belongings into the car—everything was in garbage bags, Bobby owning no luggage—she had put her hand on Dale’s arm and said, “Look out for him, will you?”
From somewhere out of sight down Rose street Dale heard a grumbling mechanical cough. That would be the bus, finally. He reached down beside the bench and lifted his heavy backpack.
“Shit,” said Bobby. He was still scowling at the phone. “Or is it from some hip hop song or something?”
Kay, now. She was really special. She was an English major. A real sweetheart. Brown eyes. Beautiful, crooked smile. That kind of hair that a few girls have that looks expertly styled and like it’s never even been combed, both at the same time. Smart and funny. Where the hell had Bobby even met a girl like that? What could he have possibly said to get her to go out with him? To come home with him?
“Tunes be the feed of heart…” said Bobby. He turned the phone toward Dale again. There were the tiny letters in the little gray box again.
Tunes be the feed of… and then a little, red heart icon.
Bobby’s brow was furrowed. His eyes, visible just above the phone, were about as troubled as Bobby’s eyes ever got. The roar of the bus became louder as it topped the hill at the end of the block and lurched into view.
“Text her back,” said Dale. “Text her back and just say, ‘Play on.’”
Bobby closed his mouth and his brow furrowed even more. “Play on?” he said.
“Yeah,” said Dale, and he stood up, hoisting the backpack onto one shoulder. Bobby, without further questions, began tapping the phone with his thumbs.
The bus screeched and wheezed to a stop and the door banged open. Dale laboriously clumped up the steps and collapsed on the front seat. Bobby soon plopped down next to him, struggling to get his arms back through the sleeves of his t-shirt. “Can you go at least twenty?” he said. “Like I said, I should get a check Monday.” The bus started again with a couple of hesitant lurches. Dale looked out the window, and Bobby’s phone gave a tiny ping like sonar in a submarine movie. He looked at it and the blinding smile appeared again.
“Hey hey!” he said, holding up the screen, “Smiley face! Score!” He elbowed Dale in the side. “Crazy! Anyway… Yeah, she’s weird, but pretty hot, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Dale, and he wriggled one hand into his pants pocket, pulled it back out and handed Bobby a crumpled wad of paper. A twenty, a five, and three ones.
“Hey, thanks, man!”
“You’re welcome,” said Dale.
Outside, the winter trees made black, jagged lines against the dirty sky, but it all got softer and softer the more his breath fogged the window.
Ken Teutsch is a writer, videographer and performer living in northern Arkansas.
© 2014, Ken Teutsch