Andrew Mozina's "The BBs" won second place in the 2013 SLS Literary Contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill and sponsored in part by Joyland.
By the time she turned seventeen, Meg Shannon had come to believe that the world pretty much sucked, but with the help of friends and family you could build a little tarp-covered shack in which you could ride out the shit storms.
She was raised in Justice, a southwest suburb of Chicago, where 294 and I-55 tangled and separated, where the late news was filled with shootings and fires and indicted politicians, where nearby forest preserves made a natural setting for drinking, drug use, freaky spiritual insights, heavy petting, and, eventually, protected and unprotected sex. At Queen of Peace High School, Sister Therese, Meg’s Christian Lifestyles teacher, hung a felt banner with the heading “A Woman of Peace…,” under which were attributes: “feels and forgives,” “cares and comforts,” “respects herself and others.” Meg bought into these virtues wholeheartedly, even sentimentally, though this didn’t stop her from stealing beer money from her dad or getting into screaming matches with her mom or telling off someone at school who crossed her.
She ran with a crew of girls who called themselves the BBs, which stood for “best buds,” “beautiful babes,” and “ball busters.” They smoked, swore, drank, played powder-puff football, coached each other through abortions, and when they felt like it, dolled themselves up like starlets for a night of house parties, showing their men the meaning of both dancing and fucking. Kim was their leader. She was a city kid, clever and fun and also a bossy motor-mouth who sometimes made Meg feel like dirt. Jenny was the soulful one, though not the sharpest knife in the drawer. With a huge chin that made her look like a muppet, Patty was the friendliest, someone you could turn to when Kim was being a bitch or wanted to cut you from the group, and Colleen was the smartest and went to college.
Pure Irish on both sides, Meg herself had orange-red hair and freckles, and she cultivated an earthy, milkmaid vibe—grounded or rowdy, as the BBs needed. She had fantasized about being a farmer’s wife on The Emerald Isle, living on a bluff over-looking the sea, surrounded by loving, happy children in front of a roaring fireplace. Instead, at age twenty-one she married Mark, her high school sweetheart from St. Laurence, their “brother school” across the street, honeymooned on a Caribbean cruise because he saw a discount flight advertised on a billboard on 294, and hit the marital ground running, waitressing five days a week at Pepe’s Mexican restaurant on 95th Street.
Her children came fast and furious—at one point she had four car seats—and these kids had absolutely no sense. They gnawed on stuffed animals, crushed Froot Loops into the carpet, broke lamps and bones, spread the Sun-Times from room to room, climbed on her body like it was a piece of rec-room furniture, reinforced the dog’s foul habits, stupefied themselves with TV and video games and computers, left pieces of clothing and plates of half-eaten food in unexpected places, and generally made everything damp and sticky and off-kilter. She threatened to shoot them, put them down the garbage disposal, hang them from a cross-beam in the garage, or drag them behind the mini-van. She didn’t believe in spanking, but to make a point she would come up behind Aileen or Joe or Molly or Patrick and flick a hard finger behind the ear. As a result, the kids made Bs in school, were on time to sports events, and mostly did the chores she assigned without lipping back that often—behavior that gratifyingly coincided with her main child-rearing goals.
Mark became a mechanical engineer and made decent money, but she waitressed off and on, depending. Their sex was fun and frequent though she had to draw the line on his perverted desires: blowjobs in T. G. I. Friday’s parking lots were OK, but anal, no matter the venue, was not. Her favorite days were Sundays during football season, when she’d get Mark and the kids into good clothes, put on one of her classier dresses, and go to mass with the fam. The service was boring but relaxing, unless she wanted something from God and then she would pray her ass off the whole time. At home, she would change into her Jim McMahon jersey and order pizza, and the whole family would hit the living room to watch the Bears game. She’d curl up with Mark on the stained, over-stuffed leather couch (part of a living room set that had put them in a credit hole for years), yell at the refs or at the play-calling of the Bears’ hapless post-Ditka coaches, and get drunk. And she imagined that Mark stayed by her because he meant it, not just because the Bears were on TV.
Occasionally, she missed driving around with the BBs, getting stoned and listening to Rush and Queen and Styx, and Mark was sometimes a selfish bastard who found fault whenever possible without minding his own shit, but things basically felt stable and safe.
Then, as she liked to put it, Mark had an accident at work: he fell and his dick slipped into a co-worker. During the ensuing fight, he called her fat and ugly. She called him a sad, limp prick desperate to prove his lack of manhood with every whore on two legs. She kind of thought it would blow over, actually, and wanted it to, but when Mark wasn’t as apologetic as she thought he should be, she got suspicious.
“This isn’t the first time,” she said near the end of dinner one night. The kids were still sitting there. She should have known something was up when she had wanted to try for child number five and he’d bullied her into signing the vasectomy consent form.
Mark glared at her, no doubt mentally practicing his lines for the instant the kids would leave the table.
“I’m just never going to be good enough for you, am I?” she asked.
“No, you’re not,” he finally responded, right in front of the children.
“Always get witnesses,” her father had said in a moment of drunken candor when she was twelve, and that’s one of the things that stuck with her through the years.
She cried for weeks after Mark moved out, often crouched in her closet after putting the kids to bed. The BBs rallied around her, letting her mooch more drinks and cigarettes than usual, and her kids were better than expected. She got way involved in their emotional lives and kept them close to her. Even so, she spiraled down into what was surely a form of madness. It took her a good six months, but she finally bottomed out and said to herself that no one would ever hurt her again, she would never cry again, she would be a woman of peace.
As the years passed, she gained weight in all the wrong places. She felt like her own body mocked her sometimes, rearranging itself in her sleep, the way her kids used to put hats on her when she took a nap on the couch or that one time they duct-taped her wrist to the coffee table when she’d passed out during a Bears game. Sometimes her flesh embarrassed her and sometimes it made her think she was becoming something established and formidable. At Pepe’s, believe it or not, there were still guys who hit on large women in their forties, scrawling first names and cell numbers on the backs of credit card receipts or giving her the eye while spanking the bottoms of their hot sauce bottles. Most men were pigs. She wasn’t judging, just stating a fact.
“How’s everything tasting tonight?” she asked a million times. “Anybody leave room for dessert?”
She kept in touch with the BBs, of course. Midlife was bludgeoning them all, though not equally. Kim was divorced, but she liked her job as a merchandise display director at Target and had a new boyfriend. Colleen had married a computer guy from Saudi Arabia and converted to Islam, which she found to be a great comfort. She wore a hijab and stopped drinking and smoking. Ironically, her husband wasn’t all that interested in following the Koran, at least the part about women also having a say in the marriage, and he was always traveling for work or to visit family back in the Middle East, so their marriage came apart, leaving Colleen, who stayed a Muslim, to raise two kids with her accounting degree. Jenny was married to a Hickory Hills cop, had three kids, and worked on the tarmac at Midway with her noise-cancelling headphones and her red light wands, parking airplanes forty hours a week. In high school, Meg had envied Jenny’s body, but she’d packed on the pounds as well.
Patty was the one who kept them all together. She never had any kids, which was sad, but her husband, a long-haul trucker, had stuck by her. She was always upbeat and a totally loyal friend. Since graduation, she had a sixth sense for when the BBs were drifting apart and she would organize a Sox game or a picnic in Grant Park or a girls’ night out, and they were always there for each other at their kids’ first communions and confirmations and graduations.
Meg also tried to put a good face on things. Her oldest, Aileen, had a job managing patient records at a dentist’s office, Joe and Molly were plugging away on their associate’s degrees at Daley College, and Patrick was not in prison, knock on wood. Every Monday she posted a new Irish blessing on her Facebook page: “For each petal on the shamrock this brings a wish your way. Good health, good luck, and happiness for today and every day.”
Then Patty got super sick. The cancer started in her ovaries and spread to her liver in no time. Soon the BBs were seeing each other regularly again at Patty’s house and during Patty’s increasingly frequent stays at Rush Hospital. Patty said the chemo wasn’t as bad as the radiation. At least she could eat mashed potatoes on chemo. The radiation was the worst—she couldn’t keep anything down.
On their visits, the BBs hid their worries and reminisced to entertain Patty.
Kim said, “Remember that time Meg yelled ‘Bite me, Sister T!’?”
Meg laughed with everyone, but she had liked Sister Therese, who had taught her to be a woman of peace, to feel and forgive. In fact, she remembered being surprisingly happy to see Sister T emerge from the school’s side entrance that Saturday afternoon, carrying a tote bag, as the BBs careened drunkenly through the parking lot in Patty’s car. Meg had wanted to greet her joyously in the rough and rowdy spirit of the BBs. She stuck her whole head and shoulders out the window, and when she yelled, “Bite me, Sister T!” the nun turned, looking shocked and even scared, before she seemed to recognize Meg and a more inward look closed her face. Meg felt guilty and then angry that what she had wanted to express came out so wrong, and she had trouble being in the same room with Sister T after that.
“She was actually nice,” Meg said quietly, as if that would be the apology she could never bring herself to make. She flushed with embarrassment even after all these years.
“I loved that woman,” Colleen said, nodding in her head scarf and meeting Meg’s eyes earnestly, but that just made Meg feel worse.
“Then why’d you switch teams?” Kim said under her breath.
“Come on, you guys,” Patty said from her hospital bed.
As if Patty’s sickness were contagious, Meg developed her own health issues. After a routine gynie appointment, her doctor sent her for tests at Mercy Hospital on 26th Street. Something about her cervix wasn’t right. Driving down to that treeless neighborhood dotted with housing project towers, in her ‘95 Buick Century with muffler issues, she had a feeling the day was going to suck, and she had never been more right. It sucked in every way, from her car dying, to discovering her high blood pressure and her aneurysm, to being threatened with a gun in the parking lot. But even all that didn’t seem as bad as Patty being on her last legs, so the next day, when an urgent call from Kim summoned her to Patty’s bedside, she hadn’t told the BBs what had happened.
Patty’s energy level had gotten so low she couldn’t talk or swallow. She was alive but she couldn’t do anything. So, while Patty’s husband was out getting some food, the BBs rubbed her temples, massaged her hands and squeezed her shoulders. They were all touching something. At one point, Jenny couldn’t help saying to Patty, “You know, bub, you’ve been trying really hard to fight this thing, but it’s time to let go.” Apparently hearing these words, Patty opened her eyes for the first time in two days, looked at the four of them, closed her eyes and passed, just like that.
At the wake, they had a buffet with sandwiches and fruit and veggie platters, a slide show, and pictures on poster board. Up in the front were the casket and flowers. The BBs had ordered an enormous floral arrangement in the shape of a flamingo with a sign that said “BBs Forever.” Kim was really proud of it. “Meg, Meg,” she said, “look up there. Which one do you think is ours?” She knew Kim was fishing, so she said, “Great job, Kim.” Walking to the front of that room and seeing Patty lying in the casket like a dummy in a wax museum, her face re-inflated and coated with make-up, was one of the hardest things Meg had ever done.
Afterwards, everyone wanted to drink. Usually Colleen wouldn’t go out with them, because apparently even going to a bar without drinking was haram (a sin), but tonight she said it was more important to be together. For Meg, religion and drinking went hand in glove, but she always tried to be respectful of her friend’s strange beliefs. The BBs were joined by Steve, who was Kim’s new boyfriend, and Laura, a friend of Patty’s who had gone to their high school but wasn’t a BB. Laura lived in Minneapolis and was going to sing at the funeral the next day.
They ended up at a really nice Italian restaurant in a strip mall on 110th Street with outdoor seating facing the parking lot. They sat outside so people could smoke. It was getting dark by now. The patio was enclosed with black railings and lit with old-style street lamps.
Kim sat at the head of the table, holding court with her cigarette up in the air. She wore her hair dyed and feathered exactly as it had been in the late 70s, her eyebrows slightly darker. She’d poured herself into a tight skirt with a slit on the side, some of her overflowing into a muffin-top, noticeable through her satin blouse. Steve sat at the other end of the table from Kim. He was a small guy but in good shape, with short hair pointed like an arrow down his forehead and a trimmed beard. Jenny took out a four-by-six photo of Patty, standing alone, on her wedding day, and propped it against a condiment caddy, facing toward the center of the table.
While their waiter, Frankie, was trying to recite the specials, Kim said to him, “Lose the bow tie—it makes you look like a six-year-old.”
Frankie stared back at her. Meg had dealt with many asshole customers herself, but she laughed. As long as Kim was aimed elsewhere, Meg could deal with her.
“We’re just drinking,” Kim added, like she was breaking a spell. “Who wants to split a bucket of beers with me?”
They hadn’t met Steve before, so once they placed their orders Laura began asking him a lot of questions.
“Steve is great,” Kim butted in. “As you all know, I have zero bladder capacity. I have to pee constantly. I even peed on Steve. Steve is like, ‘No big deal.’ That’s why I love him.”
“You’re robbing the cradle,” Colleen said. Most of them knew Steve was about ten years younger than Kim, and Kim was proud of it.
“Anyone from eighteen to eighty,” Steve said. “Eighteen to eighty. That’s my motto.”
Kim said, “I told Steve, ‘If you don’t like my friends, you don’t like me.’”
“You are so right, Kim,” Jenny said.
When Frankie brought them their drinks, Kim said, “Thanks, Frankie. But do me a favor, lose the pants, too.”
Kim laughed at herself, and Meg saw how it could be funny, but she was starting to wish Kim would lay off.
“Hey, everybody, listen up,” Kim said. She raised her beer bottle. “I just want to say something. Guys, we lost a great friend and it sucks. When Patty got sick, I didn’t think I could ever say something like this, but it was great to be with her at the end. I felt very peaceful when she passed. All my anxiety went away. I had a very, very strong feeling of peace. I think that says something about the kind of person Patty was. She was fucking awesome. To Patty!”
“To Patty!” everyone said, and everyone drank.
Meg herself had been surprised by what an incredible experience Patty’s last moments had been. “Yeah,” she said, “it was so moving. I—”
“Hey!” Kim shouted down the table, jabbing her cigarette at Steve. “You’re paying for all this! You got that?”
Steve nodded, pursing his lips in a funny way.
“Guys, guys! Steve is paying tonight, so knock yourselves out.”
Everybody did knock themselves out, pounding drinks until they got the munchies, just like old times, so Kim flagged down Frankie and they ordered some pizzas.
“I don’t know about those doctors,” Jenny said while everyone was stuffing themselves. “Nothing they ever did seemed to slow the cancer down. I just don’t understand why they couldn’t have helped Patty more.”
“That’s because you’re not as bright as the other girls,” Kim said, and she winked at Jenny. “That’s what the guidance counselor said in high school,” Kim explained to the rest of the table. “Remember that? He said Jenny wasn’t college material, that asshole.”
Kim herself went to a tiny college in Indiana that didn’t even have a football team. Colleen went to DePaul, but you never heard her lord her college over anyone. Meg wanted to stick up for Jenny, but she didn’t have the right words. Kim was always telling that story, supposedly to call out the mean guidance counselor, but now Jenny was staring into the parking lot, probably looking for a place to hide, the way Meg had felt when Kim brought up Sister T at Patty’s bedside.
There were times over the years when Meg felt that Kim was simply the collective voice of the BBs, channeling all of the group’s wisdom and rough humor. In fact, it had been Kim who one night described Mark as having an accident at work where he fell and his dick slipped into a coworker. At first, Meg hadn’t been comfortable hearing Kim blab details of her marriage going down the toilet, but Meg had taken up the expression herself. It consoled her in a way she couldn’t explain.
But now Meg felt barraged by Kim’s endless words, as if no one else had anything to say. Patty could put Kim in her place, nicely, if necessary, and Meg missed her horribly right now. She was even missing Mark, that selfish cheating prick. She could feel a weepy drunk coming on and she hated those. It was hard to be a woman of peace during a shit storm. She bummed a cigarette from Jenny, even though because of her aneurysm the doctor had said “Quit immediately and forever.” What if she keeled over right here? It wouldn’t be pretty. She lit up, took a drag, ashed onto the patio’s stone tiles.
Before Kim could take over the conversation again, Meg said to Colleen, “You know, I haven’t shaved in weeks. I was kind of worried about it, but my hair grows in blonde and you can’t really see it. All of my body hair is really soft.”
“Can I touch it?” Laura said, poising a finger above Meg’s forearm.
Everyone laughed at this. The BBs had always talked about their body hair back in the day. They were always letting their pits grow and having hairiest legs contests, unless a huge date was coming up.
Meg swallowed the last of her beer, and, just as Kim had been doing, she crammed the bottle, neck first, back into the ice bucket, then took another. Kim rattled on like a jackhammer, telling another story about her job at Target. Each story was the same: Kim had an idea, some dumbass contradicted it, Kim went ahead anyway, and the display was a huge success. “I always get what I want,” Kim said, and she glared down the table at Steve. “Remember that.” Steve also worked at Target, though Meg couldn’t figure out what he did, and he vouched for everything Kim said.
When Meg had smoked her cigarette all the way down, she bummed another one from Jenny. She didn’t give a fuck. She would smoke until her aneurysm exploded right here, and she would die in front of the BBs, and they would all feel bad about her passing like they felt bad for Patty, and that would be something. Maybe that would get Kim to shut up for five seconds. But right now the thought of her own useless death was just about enough to make Meg cry, and, fuck it, she wasn’t going to start crying for no apparent reason in front of everybody the night of Patty’s wake.
“You guys are never going to believe what happened to me,” she boomed in her loudest voice.
“What?” Jenny said.
Kim kept talking about her work heroics.
“I got attacked at gunpoint in the Mercy Hospital parking lot.”
“Really?” Laura said.
“Worst day of my life, worst day ever. Listen, listen, listen, you guys,” Meg said loudly, and Kim finally stopped talking.
“OK,” Meg said in a quieter tone. “So I go in for my gynie last month—Steve, you’re going to have to bear with me here—and the doc says there’s something with my cervix, a growth there that maybe isn’t right, and he wants me to go to Mercy for some tests, and this and that. Not really feeling like a trip to the hood, but it’s doctor’s orders, right? So I drive down there, and my car fucking stalls out in the parking lot. I’m already late for my appointment and I have to literally push my car into a spot to keep from blocking people in. Then I realize I’ve locked everything in the car—my keys, my purse, my phone—everything. So I’m already, like, this is the worst day ever.
“So, anyway, I run to the doctor’s office, and the receptionist goes, ‘Well, your appointment, blah, blah, blah,’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t. Do not even start with me,’ but I don’t say anything. Get in there, turns out my blood pressure is 208 over 100.”
“This is serious,” Steve said, as if he knew about medical facts.
“My God, Meg, you were so stressed,” Jenny said.
“Jenny, it was more than stress, I swear. The doctor says, ‘You can’t leave the hospital. We cannot let you leave with that blood pressure.’ They put me on an IV to lower it, and then they did an MRI and found I have an aneurysm in my brain.”
“Oh, no,” Colleen said.
“And they can’t even operate or take it out because of where it is. My artery has a huge balloon on it that could blow at any time.”
Meg paused to let this sink in. She put out the cigarette that was smoldering between her fingers, looked at the congealing remnants of pepperoni pizza on her plate, glanced at her beer—everything the doctor had told her not to do with that constipated look on his face. But Patty was dead, and she couldn’t be expected to follow such strict instructions today.
“It would be a huge stroke,” Meg added, in case people weren’t getting the picture. “I could die just like that.”
“Don’t say that,” Jenny said solemnly, looking directly at her.
Kim was staring at something on the table. Her burning cigarette sent up smoke like the chimney of a tiny factory.
“So, now, I’m thinking, great, things can’t get any worse,” Meg continued. “I’ve got a fucking time bomb in my head. They finally let me leave and it’s like four in the afternoon, and all I’ve had is breakfast and I’m absolutely starving. So I call my mom, and my brother’s going to come over as soon as he gets off work to break into the car and give me a jump, and I go out to the parking lot to wait for my brother, and I’m standing by my car when this guy starts coming toward me through the lot. He goes, ‘Ma’am, ma’am, excuse me.’”
“Black guy?” Kim asked.
“Yeah, he was black,” Meg said, looking hard at Kim. “But that’s not the point.”
Nodding, Laura asked, “What happened?”
Kim picked a fleck of something off her lip, inspected it, wiped it on a napkin.
“Anyway,” Meg said, “he goes, ‘Ma’am, excuse me, can you help me? Can I ask you something?’ and I’m waving my arms at him. I’m like, ‘No, no. I don’t have anything, I don’t know anything,’ but he kept coming at me, and I kept waving him off, and then, when he’s about five feet away, he pulls out a gun and says if I don’t give him all my cash he’s going to shoot me.”
“Oh, my god,” Colleen said quietly.
Meg was now re-living those moments in every detail. The guy was more compact than large—Meg probably outweighed him—and he wore a long bright yellow T-shirt as big as a dress. There was a blue padlock design on the center of the T-shirt and the padlock was open. The legs of the man’s dark shorts were stiff and wide and went to mid-calf. His eyes were flat and excited at the same time. His brown face was glistening with sweat. His mouth seemed ready to smile, as if this was all a joke, but he never so much as smirked.
“And that was it,” Meg said. “I just fucking lost it. I go, ‘Then you’re going to have to shoot me, all right? Because my purse is locked in the car, and my friend’s dying, and I’ve got an aneurysm in my brain, and you’re just going to have to fucking shoot me! Go ahead, shoot me! Shoot me!!’”
Meg noticed she was now shouting across the patio of the restaurant. In fact, she had also told the man that her husband had cheated on her—she had needed to tell him everything if she was going to end up dying in a parking lot—but she didn’t include that part now.
“I was screaming at him to shoot me,” she boomed. “I didn’t care if my aneurysm blew. I was so hungry and pissed off I almost passed out. And he looked me in the eye, and he went like this”—she imitated his nod—“because he got it, he fucking got it, he heard what I was saying, and he put his gun back in his shorts, pulled down his shirt, and kept walking.”
“Holy shit,” Jenny said.
“Good for you,” Laura said.
“He thought he had you,” Steve said. “But you had him.”
Kim took a long, silent drag on her cigarette and spouted smoke high into the air, like a breaching whale, making meaningful eye contact with Steve.
Meg nodded once herself, hard, to agree with what everyone had said. She couldn’t say anything else, just then, which was more than OK, because for the moment it felt as if she’d never need to speak again.
Suddenly everyone’s attention was overwhelming, and Meg looked around the patio. The place had emptied out except for their table. She noticed Frankie slipping through the door back into the restaurant. She hadn’t been aware of him while she told her story, but she hoped he had listened. Then into the silence, she heard herself say with a laugh, “Somebody give me a cigarette. I’ve got to calm down.”
“Holy shit is right, Meg,” Kim said, and she handed Meg one of her Kools.
“Can you fucking believe that?” Meg asked everyone, getting her lighter out of her purse. “Unbelievable. I didn’t want to say anything because of Patty, but I had to tell you guys, because you’re my best buds.”
“BBs forever,” Jenny said.
But without Patty, Meg wondered whether the BBs would remain best buds for as long as she would remember the hold-up man’s nod. She imagined the man sitting around with his own friends, telling the story of what had happened between them. “Then this white bitch went ape shit,” she heard him say, and this almost made her smile.
Meg put the cigarette Kim had given her into the corner of her mouth. Getting Kim to cough up a cigarette was a victory, no doubt, but sometimes she hated Kim—she had to admit it—just as she had come to hate Mark. She knew Sister T would say that’s not how a woman of peace was supposed to feel and forgive, but people had better fucking respect her. That was the most important thing.
“BBs forever,” Meg repeated.
Then she lit up, as if that were the same as raising a toast, and took an enormous drag on the cigarette, filling her chest, and even, she imagined, sending smoke to her aneurysm, until it seemed that both her chest and her head would burst.