His People by W. Brandon Bell

He drops the wrapping paper on the floor and squints at the rubber watch inside the plastic box. Chelle, his granddaughter, looks restless. He is acting dorky, her face says, so she escapes to her glowing phone. Her mom sits beside her on the couch, also holding a phone, watching Sam’s nonplussed reaction to his birthday gift.

“It’s a FitBit,” Sarine says. “Just like Chelle and me have.”

“Sure is,” Sam says, setting the watch by his feet. “Like a foot-counter thing. But what I want to know is can it count my drinks?”

Chelle rolls her eyes. “That joke’s old.”

Sam’s glasses have slipped down his nose, and he tilts back his head to look through them at Chelle. “You know who you looked like just now.”

“Don’t say it.”

“Just now, when you rolled your eyes.”

“Don’t.”

“Looked just like your momma.” He glances at Sarine and then back at Chelle. “Uncanny, seriously. You two could be sisters.”

Chelle fashions a puffed bottom lip and glares at him. He is tickled their old game where he drives her cute-mad has survived to her seventeenth year. The surest way to get her goat is by saying that she and Sarine could be sisters.

Sarine curls her feet beneath her and yawns to mask her smile. “Just ignore the old fool,” she says.

“Yeah, Sam-sam,” Chelle says. “It counts your steps, but also does your heart and sleep goodness and all that stuff.”

“I’m glad you’re so worried about me,” he says, picking up the FitBit. The whole world has gone nerdy. Used to be only geeks cared about beeping knickknacks, but now everyone does. He often visits a nearby bar called the Bottom Shelf, and a few guys there, guys even older than Sam, meet girls online. Been meeting these girls for years. You won’t believe these women, they say. Absolute freaks. Into the dirtiest shit. The older Sam gets, the less he cares for dirty shit. Just fuck, people. Don’t complicate it. Fucking is dirty enough. Stop doctoring it up with beads and chokers and sex costumes. A few nights ago, Clarence at the Bottom Shelf showed him a cell phone picture of a girl wearing cop-girl lingerie. Sam was like, Okay. Struck him as fuckifiying everybody’s police fears. Which are nothing new to everyday life, he’d like to inform the suddenly shocked media.

“Yep,” he says to the girls. “Awful lucky having you watching my back.”

Sarine raises her head from her phone, zonked by whatever she’d been looking at, and flashes her coy smile. “You’re all any of us worry about,” she says.

Fooling or not, he likes hearing this. If not for Chelle, he would have no relationship with Sarine. When Sarine was pregnant, she wrote him a letter, which was the first he’d heard from her in a year. “I want my daughter to know her grandfather,” the letter had said. Was she reaching out for the purpose of connecting with him? Did she really want him, the big bad daddy she had written off, in her life? Was she sniffing around for financial aid for diapers and the like? Doesn’t matter. He’s just happy she wrote. He’s happy she’s here now, celebrating his birthday.

He dances the FitBit up his forearm. “Gadgets crawl onto us like spiders,” he says. “You’re minding your business, watching a little football, and then a step-counter webs from the ceiling and latches onto your wrist.”

“You are so infuriating,” Chelle says. A video is playing on her phone. Footage from another shooting, probably. The world makes him mad, too, but he plays like it doesn’t for Chelle.

“You know to stay away from guns,” he says. This grabs their attention. Both young ladies look up from their phones and give him a searching look like they’re inspecting him for senility. “Now listen. All this shooting stuff’s going on and it’s awful, but here’s the thing about it. Okay, example. I play poker with some guys at the Bottom Shelf. Or maybe we go back to Leon’s house for a game. Sometimes a new guy’s in the group. So-and-so’s cousin. And what’s he got under his coat but a piece. What do I do? I leave, right there. I don’t care if I’m up in the game or losing money, I’m out the door.”

“But the thing’s going on now got nothing to do with us having guns,” Chelle says.

“True. I know that.”

“You’re blaming victims.”

“No, but I’m saying—”

“A man shot by the police over the audacity of carrying a saw for work.”

She chatters on, and while he doesn’t exactly listen, he figures she has a point. After she says her piece, she sinks into the couch. Nothing more anxiety-inducing than putting your passion on display. But then Sarine shows Chelle a video on her phone. Chelle is dynamic, he’ll give her that. She can rage about such and such injustice one minute, and a heartbeat later she’s laughing at a YouTube skit. The kid sees such a mix of horror and humor on her phone that she must confuse the two. Sometimes she shows the funny videos to him, and while he laughs, he smells his own fragrance on her skin, it’s mixed in there with her weird perfume, creams, and shampoo, and he is amazed at the dumb luck of starting a family.

Thank god his grandbaby isn’t a boy. Cops aren’t as likely to draw their guns on a girl. He hopes she isn’t a freak, captured on some dumbass’s phone wearing a police-teddy. It ain’t easy being a kid these days. His buddy Tye said his seven-year-old nephew is a porn addict. Seven years old and the kid watches things would cripple Sam.

Gadgets have their hooks in Sarine, same as everybody. Look at her, addicted to her phone but no boyfriend to speak of, despite being gorgeous, just like her momma. He likes seeing his ex-wife’s mouth and eyes on Sarine. Lord knows he won’t see Karine in person. “Stay away from me, my daughter, my granbaby, ever-body,” she told him years ago when he attended one of Chelle’s birthday parties. My daughter, she said. My granbaby. Karine needs to realize there is no such thing as my when it comes to people. Chelle isn’t Karine’s anything, like Sarine isn’t his anything. Everyone belongs only to himself, and nobody has a say in anybody’s life.

Sarine tests his everyone-is-independent perspective when she gets up to leave. “So soon?” he says. Chelle hops off the couch, busy kid probably has a date, and he paws a hug on her arms as she flees. Warm weather considering it’s damn near November. He doesn’t mind leaving the door open, and he watches the girls walk up Breckinridge. Nice living closeby family. He wishes Sarine had more excitement for life. She is one of those girls who is indifferent to men, lives for her kid, and has a smart insult ready for anyone who messes with her.

He studies his reflection in the storm door window. Hair’s getting spongy, better get it cut. Gray on top. At least he ain’t bald. Hasn’t gotten too heavy, either. In fact, he looks pretty good when you account for the fact that he’s a borderline geezer.

He grabs the FitBit from the living room floor on his way to the kitchen. He rips off a hunk of rotisserie that Sarine left on the table. It’ll be a good snack when he comes home from the bar later. He checks the clock on the stove. 7:42. Not too late to go out for a birthday drink. He got paid yesterday. Steadiest stretch of work in his life. Flushest he’s even been.

He eats another bite of meat while reading the FitBit box. Says he can set goals. Track his activities. Monitor his sleep. He’ll wear it to the Bottom Shelf as a joke. “Wonder if it can count my drinks,” he says. Chelle said the joke is old, but who cares? His people haven’t heard it yet.


W. Brandon Bell lives in Louisville, Ky. His stories appear in New Plains Review, Harpur Palate, Jelly Bucket, Barnstorm, The Broken Plate, and other publications. His website, wbrandonbell.com, is home to The Convergence, a catalog of recurring passages in Don DeLillo’s books, plays, and stories.

Advertisements