How Different Atoms Handle Light by Fiona J. Mackintosh

When I got back from Nam and started going to Morgan State on the GI Bill, I rented an apartment on Northern Parkway. Trouble was, it had two bedrooms, so I had to find myself a roommate.

I’d lost touch with most of my high school friends, but one day I ran into Vinnie Jackson, and he invited me to his regular Wednesday night basketball game in an elementary school near Perry Hall. I still hadn’t got my land legs so I ran like I’d just gotten off a horse, but I did all right. Those games were like church for me for a while. Afterwards, we’d go to some bar, all sweaty and smelly, and drink about 50 pitchers of beer.

Will was one of the basketball guys, stocky with hair down to his shoulders and a long wide beard. He had a fearless style of playing ball, driving straight through the defenders to the basket. I admired that. He’d left the seminary to study for his Master’s in psychology and needed a new pad. We shook on it, and he paid me the first month’s rent in tidy $10 bills, all present and correct.

My own hair was still growing out after the Navy. I’d joined up to get away from my dad. When my mom would make me a sandwich or iron my shirt, he’d get mad and say she was his woman, not mine. I hated being on the carrier, but Southeast Asia blew my mind. I was a boy from Baltimore who’d never been anywhere. Lost my cherry to a whore in Hong Kong. Smoked my first doobie on a hill over Subic Bay with a kid called Harvey Petersonfrom California, and it wasn’t long before I was dropping acid. Our dealer worked in the control room for flight ops. He told us the infantry guys bought liquid speed in mayo jars in Saigon. I’d have done it too, I was ready to try anything to get out of my head.

The apartment was a dump. Walls were so thin you could hear the guy next door splashing in the tub. Will didn’t care about the place any more than I did. We both left dishes in the sink for days. Every once in a while, my mom showed up with my little sister and cleaned the place. That was the only time I saw them since I never went over to the house. I hardly ever studied, but Will worked every day on a TV tray in the living room. His goal was to be a psychologist working with juvies in the correction system. He laughed when I told him I’d rather be a priest and give up sex for life. Some of those juvies end up in the military so I know what I’m talking about. Close quarters on the carrier was no joke. They’d duck-tape men to their bunks or trap them in stowage lockers. Worst thing was making them kneel and fake giving a guy head. Working in the Captain’s office kept me off-limits, but it always felt like things could get out of hand at any minute.

Will could block out all distractions, the TV, the rattle of the a/c unit, the noisy neighbors, even me. When I’d smoke dope, I’d get the urge to howl like a wolf. Will never even turned his head. I smoked a shitload of the stuff in those days. One time I came back from a bike ride and walked into the kitchen, the bike up on my shoulder, and saw some strange guy stirring something in a pot on the stove. Took me a second to realize I was in the wrong apartment.

One night I was playing James Brown real loud, and the guy next door banged on the wall, shouting, “Turn that shit down!” I got so pissed I took it out on the cassette, ripping out handfuls of brown tape onto the floor. As I sat back, the empty cartridge in my hand, Will looked up from his textbook, smiling. “You’re your own worst enemy, man, you know?” There he sat so cool, so zen. I asked him how he did it, was it maybe the seminary in him? And that’s when he told me about one time not long before he met me when he was driving home from the late shift at UPS and stopped by 7-11 for a slice. In the parking lot – as he talked, I could see bugs swirling round the streetlights and smell that mix of hot dog and coffee grounds – this guy and girl came up to him, said they’d run out of gas and could he give them a ride to the Esso station. Half a mile up the road, they jumped him. The guy even pulled a knife.

“Shit, man. What’d you do?”

Will shook his head, looking off at a stain on the living room carpet. “I messed him up. Dragged him out of the car and pounded him so bad, I think I broke his eye socket.”

“Holy mackerel! What happened to the girl?”

He shook his head. “May have punched her a couple times too. I got a temper on me, man, believe me. I’m not proud of it.”

You pay attention when someone tells you a story like that, especially when they’ve never bragged a minute in their life. The mildest man I knew, I’d have put money on it. You never can read a person from the outside. Those assholes on the ship too, I guess. Maybe their daddies beat on them when they were little kids or their moms had died. Or maybe they were just assholes for no reason. Story over, Will went back to his books. I brought us a couple cold ones from the fridge and stuck a pencil in the cassette hole and started to wind.

[A version of this story was published online at Found Polaroids.]

Fiona J. Mackintosh (@fionajanemack) is the Scottish-American author of a flash collection, The Yet Unknowing World from AdHoc Fiction. She has won the Fish, Bath, and Reflex Flash Fiction Awards, and her short stories have been listed for the Cairde Word, Colm Toíbín, Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Prizes. Website: