Benny taps the bag of Skittles in his jacket pocket. The drive-in where he and Kyle first met is abandoned now. Foxes denning in the concession booth, chain-link fence rusting, kudzu taking over everything. 

A hint of snow in the darkening Indiana sky reminds Benny of Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency.” In an early-season snowstorm, the narrator mistakes a drive-in for a graveyard. Instead of speakers, he sees headstones. Instead of actors on a silver screen, he sees angels descending from heaven. When Benny read the story, it was hard for him to see how a person could make that kind of mistake, snow or no snow. Then he remembered the narrator, a hospital orderly, was high as a kite on pain pills stolen from the hospital’s pharmacy. 

But now Benny’s parking just outside the sagging gate and mixing reality and fantasy. Benny, who keeps his hair cut short, his shirt tucked, and his pants belted. Benny, who pops Skittles one at a time, is looking at drive-in speakers and thinking of gravestones—and Kyle. Benny’s always thinking of Kyle.

Kyle liked to tease Benny by quoting market research describing people who one-at-a-timed their Skittles as detail-oriented, more likely to binge-watch shows, and more likely to put the toilet paper on the holder with the loose end on top. 

Benny had wanted to call bullshit but couldn’t because he was a certified binge-watcher. As for the toilet paper, not only did he put it on the dispenser in the over position, if he saw it hung the other way at friends’ houses, he’d switch it.

Kyle, in contrast, organized his Skittles by color and ate them that way. “Like 28% of Americans,” he said, smirking and citing the research. 

Meals or candy, Kyle always saved his favorite flavor for last. He ate his Skittles green, red, orange, purple, yellow. “Yellow is America’s least-liked Skittle,” he’d say, his chest swelling with contrarian pride, “preferred by only 6% of the country.” 

Kyle had loved yellow Skittles, loved numbers, hated cilantro. He’d carried a gene that made it taste like soap. Benny and Kyle both had learned what soap tasted like from talking back to their dads.

“That’ll teach you,” Benny says, shaking his finger at a rusted speaker standing silent in the November twilight. “That’ll teach you to keep a civil tongue in your head.” 

Benny pulls the package of Skittles from his pocket. The wrapper crinkles in the crisp air. He tears off a corner, shakes a few candies into his palm, and tucks the packet back into his pocket. 

Gravel crunches under his feet as he walks from one speaker to the next, creating five orderly piles of brightly colored visitation stones.

Green, red, orange, purple, yellow.

In Denis Johnson’s story, a man named Terence Weber walks into the hospital with a knife stuck in his head. Georgie, the narrator’s buddy, also high as a kite, pulls the knife out of Terrence Weber’s head. Terrence Weber walks home the next day. 

Life works like that in stories.

The night Kyle died, he was standing in line with Benny waiting to buy tickets at the fancy new theater downtown. Lots of lights, lots of glass, a brick facade. Some tweaked-out street kid ran up, shoved a hunting knife into Kyle’s side, yanked it out, and ran off. Who knows why. Who knows what he was seeing. 

Kyle didn’t walk anywhere. He slumped to the sidewalk. Benny went down next to him, held him upright, dialed 911 with his free hand.

“Six quarts,” Kyle said, watching his blood puddle on the sidewalk. 

It made sense to Benny that Kyle’s last words included a number. Nothing else about the way their story ended did.

This story was prompted by Justin Deming (drive-in, fox, bar of soap).

If you liked this, you might also like She Drowned Before I Heard the Explosion.

Slip me a few bucks so I can buy some Skittles.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash