“SCUMBAG” by ALICE FLORIDA XU

A man in an empty room in a vacant house. He takes photographs of the walls, the floor. He removes objects from his backpack. A knife. Twelve zip ties. A purple vibrator. A saw. He takes photographs of the objects. He stands at the window, sweating a little.

His name is James. He used to mow that lawn. He and another guy. The guy laid his clippers on a hedge and said, “Fuck I gotta shit.” James watched as he tried the back door. Then as he palmed a window. The glass jiggled a little, its reflection trembling. He palmed another window and it slid up. The guy hopped and wriggled in like a limbless person, like a worm. That was two years ago. James was thirty, twenty-nine maybe. The guy opened a back door. The house was big and clean and empty. James walked the rooms. He liked the smeared light on the hardwood. Upstairs he liked the white wall-to-wall. Zero stains. Nothing like his house. James was living with people then. A fat guy, a skinny guy, and a junkie girl. I’ll come back here one day.

A year later. He had already been fired from Anderson Landscaping. No cars in the drive. He knocked. He palmed the window. It slid. The inside was as clean and as empty as before. He felt afraid and left. Two months later he went back. Still nobody home. It was like a what do you call it, a mystery. Like where had the people gone. Who paid to keep the lawn nice. Six months passed and he went back. Still nobody around. Then a month after that. He walked the house and imagined things happening here. A week after that. A few more times. Today.

At home in his parents’ basement he checks his email. He thinks somebody sent him something but it’s just a scammer. He turns on a light and takes everything out of his backpack. Knife. Vibrator. Saw. Eleven zip ties. He starts sweating and counts again. Twelve zip ties. He gets under the blanket. The room is dark. A sheet hangs from a clothesline, partitioning his space from the storage boxes and washer-dryer and the fridge that used to be upstairs. James has a mattress, a TV, a computer. A window is open; the sheet sways a little. James closes his eyes. The old fridge drips. Drip.         Drip            drip

When James was twelve a particular girl lived five houses down. That little rancher, 617 Oakwood. Seafoam asbestos siding. Squared-off bushes. In afternoons she walked her dog, a fuzzy gray thing. Her name was Laura or something. James liked her pink cheeks, her brown hair. Something good about her. One day she didn’t have the dog. Her eyes were red and her face shined. James on his front lawn, carving sticks into spears. “Riley, Riley, come here boy,” she was yelling. She looked at James and said, “Did you see a dog?” He nodded. “You did?” He nodded again and stuck his hands in his pockets and she followed him to the back of his house. He thumbed the penknife closed, open. He went down the steps and into the basement, the glass stickered with little American flags. “Riley’s in here?” James said, “Over here,” and he took her to a dim corner. He kept his hands in his shorts. Closed, open, closed, open. “Where’s Riley?” Closed, open, closed, open. He stared at her. Goodness set in, or maybe mediocrity, or cowardice; he still wonders what kept his hands in his pockets. She walked backwards and turned and ran into the light. “Riley,” she yelled, a tiny shrinking voice, “Riley       riley               riley

He tries to nap but can’t so he watches TV till seven, then borrows his dad’s car and drives to Walmart under dimming sky rimmed westerly with pink, like some magnified scar concealed behind black trees. Kids on the sidewalk. Pumpkincolored light veiling halves of houses. Something nice in this. He buys a blue plastic tarp with cash and Cheez-Its and Pepsi with his EBT card. He gets home and puts his dad’s keys on the mantle and thanks his father and his father groans. He checks his email. Nothing. He checks the Craigslist ad, makes sure he wrote it OK. He reads it once, twice, then aloud: “Film student needs child actress for student film. Needs to be eight to eleven years old. Brunette and cute. Innocent looking. I will need to take test shots. If I pick you I’ll pay a thousand dollars for three or four hours.” He checks his email again and hears his parents creaking above his head and the TV in the corner is playing reruns of nineties sitcoms, and on his computer he’s looking at pictures he’s looked at one thousand, two thousand, maybe ten thousand times, and then a video in a white room, the one of a child whose wallcolored face (alive, but only sorta) conveys deep distance, numbness. Dry pursed lips. A living mummy. He closes his eyes when the light in the window darkens, summer bugs chattering like dad’s ratchets.

A year ago James was washing clothes when something shifted in his periphery. James looked, watched a bit of black rope slip across a square of light. A snake. James remembered his dad finding one down here, killing it, when James was ten or eleven. James turned on a light. Where’d it go. James looked and saw the black end of its tail. The snake was hiding behind a box. James moved the box, watched it escape like a thread of liquid on a shifting platform. What a big snake. James watched it go behind another box. James got a baseball bat from under his bed. James moved the box, hoping it was still there. It was. It didn’t try to escape. He stared at it a while. He raised the bat. He held the bat. He went and got a towel. He grabbed it, carried outside, felt it whip around, took it behind his father’s shed and left it there.

He checks his email in the morning. A response. He reads it once, twice, then aloud: “My daughter can do it. She’s nine. We can meet you today or tomorrow.” James writes back: Today is good meet me at 1130 Hill Road in Burkeville at noon. James checks his email at 9:12 am, at 9:15 am, at 9:28 am, at 9:42 am, at 10:01 am. Another email. Okay see you at noon it says.

James sets up the tarp in the living room of the vacant house, stomps out the wrinkles. Leaves his backpack in the corner. Opens his tripod in the middle of the tarp. Puts the video camera, a big black thing his dad bought in the late nineties, on the tripod, swirls it around a little. Wipes sweat off his forehead. Takes still photos of the room, of the objects in the backpack, puts the objects back in the backpack, puts the backpack back in the corner. Watches the window. Wipes sweat off his forehead.

A truck pulls up at 12:29. A middle-aged guy in a tanktop gets out. An little girl gets out. She’s fat, he thinks. They walk to the door and the man knocks. James breathes deeply, hearing their muted conversation, the girl saying in a southern accent, “How long we gonna do this for.” James opens the door. The man looks at him, up and down.

“Hi,” James says.

“So you’re who I talked to,” the man says.

“Yes.”

“Where’s everybody else?”

“Nobody else—” James says, coughing into his hand.

“Why you all sweaty?”

“I think I’m a little sick or something.”

“This is Crystal.”

James looks at her. She’s not what he pictured. “OK,” James says, sticking his hand out. “Nice to meet you—”

The girl reaches out; the father grabs her arm. “Don’t shake his hand. He’s sick.” He looks up at James. “What’s this about a thousand dollars?”

“Yeah, well I have to take some test shots, see if she works.”

“Well take the shots.”

“Sure.”

The father and daughter walk inside. James walks toward the other room, says, “Crystal, will you come with me.”

“I’m coming too,” the dad says.

Crystal and her father follow James into the living room, the blue tarp crunching like crumpled paper under their feet.

“Stand right here,” James says meekly.

He wipes sweat from his forehead, coughs twice and raises the camera, takes five photos of the chubby girl as she smiles widely, absurdly. James lowers the camera, looks at the little pictures on the digital display.

“Well, does the pass the test?” her father says, grinning.

“Um yes, sure. She’s going to be in the movie.”

“I am?” she says, turning to her father. “You didn’t say I was going to be in a movie! A movie!”

“When does the shoot start?” the dad says.

“Today is fine,” James says, scrolling through the pictures over and over. “I’ll just need you to leave,” James says, quietly, almost silently.

“What?” the man says.

“I need you to sit in your car . . . or at least the other room, and we’ll start.”

The dad looks at the little girl and says, “You tell me if he says anything funny. And pal,” he says, looking up at James, “I’m not playing with you, you said a thousand bucks and I’m holding you to a thousand bucks.”

“Sure.”

The man walks away. James hears the front door creak and close.

“I’m going to be in a movie?” the girl says.

“Yeah,” James says, walking behind the tripod.

James pushes the red button on the camcorder; tiny gears buzz. James points the camera at the little girl. “Your character’s name is Emily.”

The little girl makes a gummy smile. James steps to his left, looks to the front of the house. Her father outside smoking, visible through the window. James walks to his backpack. He touches the saw, the knife, the vibrator. He reaches in, feels the zip ties. He grabs a handful, feels lightheaded, lets them go. He walks back to the camcorder. Still lightheaded and nauseated now. The little girl looks confused. This wasn’t what he had imagined. He imagined the kid coming alone, or the parent leaving her here.

“Um what do you want me to do?” she says.

“You’re doing good. Say, My name is Emily. I am going to school.”

“My name is Emily. I am going to school.”

James walks over to his backpack, “Keep talking,” he says.

“I love school . . . and I am . . . Emily . . .” she is saying as James grabs the knife, lets it go, grabs it again, this isn’t what he wanted, lets it go, he thought it would be different, like he imagined the girl looking like an anime thing, like a tiny person with big eyes looking up at him and he imagined slashing and her skin of her neck separating like jello and blood coming out in a blast of crimson smoke that dissipates and is gone as the body collapses into a silent pile of empty clothes; this would be nothing like that, he knows that now, but he has to do something before her dad finishes the cigarette, he’ll kill her, then him, he grabs the knife, no, no, no, no, this isn’t what he wants. He stands, she’s saying, “ . . . and my favorite teacher is Ms Jacobson, and the meanest boy on my bus is Tim Elliot, he threw a balled up piece of paper at the bus driver . . .” and he stops behind the camera and starts puking, yellow and cheese-tasting. He hears the door. He looks at the girl. She’s quiet now, wide-eyed.

“Um,” she says.

She starts to walk away and James gags dryly.

James pukes onto the puke and hears the girl whispering in the other room. The dad walks into the room.

“Hey buddy, you sick?”

“Yeah, a little bit . . . but . . . eck . . . everything’s fine.”

“You know what man how bout you pay us now, cuz all this is starting to look like bullshit.”

“I’ll pay you at the end of the day.”

The man is staring at the puke. “Oh yeah, OK, well at least show me the money you’re going to pay us. Cause we ain’t gonna go on with this till you do.”

“At the end of the day.”

The man pauses and says, “OK, sure, no problem. Well we’re going to take a little break. Give you time to clean all that up. We’ll be right back.”

“Do you believe me?” James says.

“Yeah bud, I believe you. Sure I believe you. You clean that up. Be right back.”

James pukes a little more, hears the girl and the man talking. The door creaks and clicks.

James walks toward the window. Sees them walking toward the truck. The man is talking on a phone. James runs into the living room, stuffs the camcorder into the backpack. Puts the backpack on. Goes out a back door. He streaks up an alley. He is walking toward his house, gagging, sweating. His legs feel rubbery; his head hurts; his vision sways. He sits. He lies on the sidewalk, sharp and stony. He feels heat on his back, his head. He hears someone say, “Hey.” James says “Ehh.” He gags; his throat throbs and fills; puke spreads around his face. “Hey!” someone yells again. James is still for a few moments. He hears a siren, like a baby’s cry, amplified, distorted. He stands, almost falls, squints. He sees a little house, an old lady on the porch. He walks toward her, his vision all wobbly. He thinks he should kill her, but he doesn’t have the strength for that, plus he never wanted to kill anyone, not really. What did he want. What the fuck did he ever really want. He walks inside, the woman yelling behind him. He opens a door. Then another door. Steps, strips of daisy-patterned laminate covering them. He walks into a cool basement. He hides behind a box like a snake. James is very still. Like that he waits for them to find him.