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Down and Out at the Breast-feeding School

Second place

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CL Atlanta Fiction Contest: 2011, 2012, 2013 - First Edition
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Through the smoke, Johnson Mathers could see Dickey at the forlorn end of the barroom, stationed where he always used to be. Back when Johnson was cool. Back before Johnson married a cop and his penchant for the occasional doobie was forced into extinction. In Dickey's hipster sneer and peacock neck tattoo Johnson saw just what he'd been looking for: a scalawag who might double as a sounding board. Johnson toed up to the bar, the longest vessel of its kind in southeast Atlanta. When Dickey saw him, he whooped: "Well I'll be a cat's ass in a dog's mouth!"

Johnson cuffed his old-fashioned, wove through a huddle of dudes, and saddled up next to Dickey. They bumped knuckles. "Was afraid all the old regulars had moved on," Johnson said. "I hate coming to bars alone, even this one."

"Short leash still?"

"Very."

"How is she these days, your cop wife?" Dickey said.

Johnson peered into his tumbler. His temples ached after another week of auditing failing car dealerships. He used to catch tax cheats for a living, but with the recession his scrutiny turned to corporations, whose executives wanted excuses to axe half the staff. Johnson bowed to assholes all day and feigned self-respect.

"She's pregnant," he said. "Eight months."

"Brother, congratulations." Dickey set down his PBR and clapped.

"No," Johnson said. "Stop."

"But this is the Irish mazel tov — drunken clapping," Dickey said. "Why stop?"

"Because it's all over now," Johnson said. "I mean this is the absolute end of being young. She's allowing me this one last half-night out; I have a curfew. We're going to some place called 'Breast-feeding School' in the morning. We have to log three hours. And then shopping. All day. Saturday — poof, gone."

"Shopping?"

"For onesies. And specialized pacifiers. And this fucking space-age bottle that minimizes air intake, and thus the need for burping."

Dickey slapped a wiry hand on Johnson's arm and hollered: "Shots!"

Though 30 years old, Johnson had essentially been grounded for several months. And his wife, Gilder, was capable of stomping to Risky's Tavern and retrieving her wayward man like an inebriated burglary suspect. She'd dragged him home once before, at the 20-week mark, the night before they learned the baby's gender.

"Don't run away from this," Gilder had said, her hand in clockwise orbit around her abdomen. "We're going it together, from here until forever."

"You got it," Johnson told his wife. "You. Me. It. Forever."

Midnight descended. To Johnson, the barroom swayed like a kelp forest of buffoonery. He stared at his watch.

"It's the end of Johnson's last night, isn't it?" Dickey said, sucking a Parliament.

"I have to be coherent," Johnson said. "I have to learn something at the school."

"What's the point?" said Dickey. "Not your tits."

"The man, they say, plays a vital role."

"Men are predators, not nurturers."

"Not modern man," Johnson said. "Modern man is a bitch."

As Johnson settled his tab and stood up, Dickey leaned in: "Come out to the parking lot," he said. "I have something in the back of my Cavalier."

Johnson backed away. "I'm not smoking anything," he said. "They test at Alfred and Associates. Piss and hair."

"Just come," Dickey said. "You'll go home happier, and you'll learn more at school."

Streetlights cast a dirty yellow pall on Dickey's moribund Cavalier, a rust-bitten convertible. Dickey opened the trunk and exhumed a pizza box. "I read somewhere, or maybe heard it on television, that all parenthood really boils down to is the ability to sacrifice," Dickey said. "It's a noble thing you're doing."

"Yeah, sure."

"You know," Dickey said, "I think I heard that line about sacrifice on 'Oprah.'"

"You dragged me out here for pizza?"

Dickey made the conniving hand gestures of a novice magician. "This is special pizza, boy," he said. "A mushroom recipe I've been working on. Fully organic with only the slightest hint of psychotropic backlash."

"You're out of your mind."

"This one's on me."

"I'm not eating anything from you."

"Quality cheese, a little prosciutto," Dickey said, poking Johnson's ribs, "and I'm pretty sure I found the right pasture."

"I never tried mushrooms."

"Then you don't know the cosmic answer."

"Whatever, Dickey."

"Hey, maybe it won't work," he shrugged, "but you can't say I sent you home hungry."

Johnson clasped the box and turned toward home. "I appreciate the thought. See you when I see you."

"Sacrifice yourself," Dickey said, "and you'll know the meaning of life."

To Johnson's surprise, Gilder had slept through his tardiness. He poured a glass of water from the fridge and cracked a lite beer. Pale blue moonlight permeated the kitchen. Johnson eyed the pizza box. He opened it and inhaled a surprisingly fresh aroma, a hint of basil and mozzarella. He dipped a finger in the sauce — smoky, oniony. He reconciled the risk: Dickey had always talked so much shit, surely this was his way of disguising a kind gesture. One way or another a single piece of good pizza wouldn't kill a man.

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