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FICTION / Jodie's Red Dragons / Mitchell Duran

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These are some of the facts of Jodie, the one-and-only, the wavy, the gravy, the Red Dragon lady of New York City: icy magenta Forever 21 marigold lips that that since the day she was born only talked shit; barely got through Central Park East H.S. but still, still was smarter than any smacked-out junk street hustler or tweed wearing pencil pushing Columbia boasting bottom lip trembling academic; so tough, so not-give-a-shit she once punched a NYPD in the nose for pulling a gun on her while she was peeing near the tailpipe of their police cruiser by accident; delicate and elusive as any Lane St. and Liberty Lane gutter bound snowflake clipped from a winters cloud, drifting pendulum down to Earth; and only 18 years old when I met her, who made sure I met her and not the other way around. Let me tell you, it was a brick of a day when I did, waiting on the subway on the MTA D train.

Jodie asked me (me, the wannabe punk who listened to Rancid, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys with the sound at ¾ volume with a six-pack on my gut only because I was skinny and really nothing but a softy inside with barely enough money every month to pay rent on time) in a bark, “What do you want?”

I’ll be real with you; I was grilling her out the corner of my eye after she passed me on the platform. How could I not with her sapphire, aquamarine, and raspberry colored rings lining her bamboo fingers and her Morena bent frame; her scuffed, oily light pink Chuck Taylors with upside down crosses painted in Sharpie on the toes? How could I not peep her?

A train rushed by us before I had a chance to answer her. Her eyebrow flexed and I could see she thought I was fronting on her by not answering her back. I didn’t want the first words I ever uttered to be lost in that fleeting silver echo that was the train. I didn’t want anything to be lost when it came to Jodie. Time had stopped - frozen solid. Hella paused. While I hesitated or waited or whatever, all around us, trash was swirling hot, wet, mildew laden air as rats seemed to stare at us from the tracks as Jodie waited. Even now, I can feel the percolating tension as I stood next to her with her arms crossed, her hard toe tapping, with her head tilted to one side so her shining, olive black hair flooding down onto her Hershey Kiss shoulders.

Maybe it was just me projecting or dreaming, whatever you want to call it, but there was mad chemistry going on. The vibe was like a kinetic tingling in the middle of my chest; that playful, combative affront to my waning personal space; the look up and down; the way she did this hard sniff followed by the intentional clack of her tongue slapping the roof of her mouth as the tsk tsk tsk clapped out her mouth like I wasn’t shit, wouldn’t ever be shit, wasn’t even on the shit-scale-o-meter and all this happening as the train screeched to a silent stop.

“You,” I blurted at Jodie finally.

The train doors opened, and I followed her inside when she gave me a smirk with a nod to come hither.

Just like that I was at her beck and call.

Just like that I was her pet.

Just like that she had me.

The sounds of feet hitting tile and the whispers of strangers revolving around a saxophone player cut when the doors slammed shut behind me.

Sitting next to her, afraid to take my eyes away for fear of her disappearing and floating away like the angel she was, I may have accidentally glanced at the milk pale crescents of her cleavage, both of them urged upward by a black lace pushup bra, the pair of them cradled by a thin, slightly tattered, V-neck t-shirt.

“Well…” Jodie smirked. She took a cigarette out and let it hang between her fingers. There was a print of a tiny red dragon printed on the side of her cigarette. “What do you want with me?”

There was a flutter in my stomach followed by the sudden urge to flee. Jodie was danger. Jodie was trouble. Jodie gave no lamentations to the rules. I felt like I didn’t have any answer that would match her. Whatever I said, I thought, was beneath her. Then I opened my mouth and this shit came out.

“You can’t smoke that in here.” I nodded at the side of her head.

Psh, I thought immediately, Listen to my mark ass.

Jodie scoffed. “Says who?” She flicked her Aphrodite cheeks left and right, looking around the train.

“Guess no one,” I said.

“So, what’s good chico?” Jodie sighed, already bored, fluttering her eyes.

 “I guess wanted to ask,” I stammered, hanging onto what little manhood I had left. “I wanted to see if you weren’t busy or nothing I could take you to some place nice.”

Jodie’s lips pursed and the faintest hint of blush pushed up from underneath her cheeks. She scratched at her marble neck, strawberry nail polish reflecting the flickering lightbulb above us. After a pause, Jodie inched toward. Every pore of my skin started to throb in weird areas like my temples, the bottom of my feet, and the inside of my throat. My mouth was so dry I had to force myself to swallow just to breathe. My mind told my body to flee to protect itself, but I couldn’t move. Another apart of me, my soul or heart or something, told me to stay as close as possible to her, to never leave her side no matter what.          

“How ‘bout…” Jodie started to say. She grinned as she slid another inch. Her cheap cherry lip-gloss and CVS perfume punched the inside of my nostrils.

“How ’bout that and then, after we see how that goes, we see what happens.”

“Word?” I asked.

“Word.”

We took the D to Grand and drank my rent money away on Mickey’s hand grenades in a bar called Euthanized in the Lower East Side until we were kicked out for mashing lips too hard in one of their cracked leather booths.

At some point, the pair of us had smoked most of her Red Dragons.

“What are these things you’re smoking?” I asked groggily.

I raised an unlit one up to the spider web iron lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. It had been her idea to walk to the middle of it. I feared she was going to jump and bring me with her. Of course, I would have gone. Jodie was walking ahead of me into the rising wave of the hot pink dawn. I felt the thin, brittle paper of the Red Dragon between my fingers and put it up to my nose, inhaling the rank smell of motor oil-soaked tobacco and cow shit.

“Those are my Red Dragons,” Jodie explained. “Every single one of my family members smokes these…well…smoked these.”

“Where they at?” I asked. A drunken hiccup followed.

“They’re gone!” Jodie erupted. Her voice seemed to stop the wind blowing at us. Jodie flicked a butt into the air and over the side of the railing, uninterested as it tumbled toward the water. She lit another one.

“Gone where?” I asked, dumb and drunk.

“You’re pretty thick, huh?”

“Like, fat?” I looked at my malnourished frame. “I didn’t think so.”

A blast of laughter rocketed out of her. Jodie shook and slapped her hand on the railing. Whatever melancholia had been gripping her, for a moment it had been lifted by naivety. She wiped a tear away then, another one then, one more. She started to cry. I went to comfort her, but instantly she had balled her fist up and punched me hard in the chest.

“Hey!” I said shocked. “What the…”

Her slicked eyes, incandescent from a source I would spend my life searching for, looked at me, stopping me cold.

“What was that for?”

A step, a step, and then one more until she was in my arms, pressing her feet into the ground to push her body into mine even harder. Her lips followed.

Purpose: what a liberating, earth shattering thing.

Jodie, my danger, my hemlock, my orphaned sinking ship with me el capitan; Jodie, my reason, my treason, my equation for being; Jodie who left me after six months of wild bar fights, sex all night, make no money but don’t give a damn because her favorite cigarettes, her Red Dragons, had suddenly, for no reason at all, stopped selling in all of New York.

“Hell do you mean you stopped selling them!” Jodie screamed at May, the small Korean woman who ran the convenience store above my in-law garden apartment.

May shrugged her old shoulders. “I don’t know. They just stopped coming.”

I was headed to work at the fish market for my 14th day in a row (I had to make overtime that month). Instead, I had spent the day going from borough to borough, neighborhood-to-neighborhood liquor store, looking for these Red Dragons with her.

Every time she screamed, every time she demanded an answer but, at the last shop, the two of us got a lead.

“I know they sell them in Chinatown in San Francisco,” the old gray man with no shirt and one nipple told us. He lit up a Parliament and could barely see over the cash register.

“San Francisco?” I asked, dejected.

The old man’s spine creaked as he nodded yes.

“It’s a sign,” Jodie said, her eyes suddenly glossy and final. She looked at me in a kind of sad and lost way, like she’d been told a truth she had no choice but to accept.

“Sign for what?” I asked.

“Sign that I’m leaving you.”

“You want something else?” the old man asked. A plume of thick smoke had replaced his head.

I couldn’t hear him.

Before I could say anything, Jodie was out the door and back into the streets where we had found one another.

There were probably other reasons Jodie was leaving, smaller things like she having no job or me working below minimum wage at a fish factory, or that my idea of a romantic night out was staying in with a bowl of hot “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” sprayed popcorn only to stare at the indigo blue night from the roof we weren’t supposed to be hanging out on. Some nights, I’d force Jodie to wait for a shooting star or a satellite to whip by so I could catch it and give it to her.

“What is it you want Jodie?” I’d crack at her in those humid, star splattered nights. “What do you want? Do you want the moon?”

Jodie would roll her eyes, trying to hold back a smirk. “You ain’t no Bogart.”

“It’s Stewart baby.”

“Whatever.”

She would give me playful shove and then we’d see if we could touch each other’s tonsils with our tongues between gulps of nasty boxed wine we’d stolen.

Jodie, serious, stayed with me for three days until she found a friend’s couch. I tried to talk to her, but she showed no effort in returning words. All I ever got was, “I’m here because I have to be.”

The final morning, as newspaper trucks rumbled by, I saw Jodie on the curb through the beat-up shade, her ripped up suitcase by her side. I jumped out of bed, remembering in that horrified instant that I’d forgot to set an alarm to make her breakfast in bed to coax her to stay. Idiot! This is why she was outta’ there! Because of me! Because I couldn’t set no freaking alarm!

Pleading and begging in my underwear for her to reconsider, the answer became clear.

“Let’s go to San Francisco!” I screamed. “I just got paid and haven’t put in rent yet. I can borrow my brother’s beater car…say I need it for work or something. Let’s go!”

Jodie gave me the softest, most endearing look she’d ever given to me through the window of that piss yellow cab which she definitely didn’t have money to pay. The middle of her cream-colored forehead lifted so her eyes grew sinless and innocent. The porches of her cheeks blossomed rose. Everything hard edge about her melted and she looked suddenly so young, so unburdened, like life and all its trials had suddenly been lifted from her being. She’d never tell me, but I don’t think anyone in her life had offered so much for something so trivial.

“You’d do that for me baby?” Jodie asked with a warble in her throat.

“Do you want the moon?” I smiled. “Just say the word and I’ll pull it down.”

“What are you talking about baby?”

“Just get out of the cab and I’ll tell you all about it.”

I grabbed everything of mine that didn’t smell like tuna, called to tell my job I was out of town, and we were gone.

Before noon we were weaving down through Philadelphia, sick on cheese steaks, then through Kentucky where Jodie got so stinking drunk on cheap bourbon one night I had to carry her on my back to the motel we bailed on. In Tennessee I bought a pair of used cowboy boots with plastic lime rhinestones on the tips that gave me the worst scabs. The car broke down for a bit in New Orleans, so we slept side by side on a friend’s couch, giggling in the dark like little kids on a play date. In the morning, we made coconut daiquiris and burnt chocolate-chip banana pancakes for breakfast.

Nothing in Austin, but around there was when we got into the fight. Jodie was having some sort of existential crisis, convinced that the whole trip was a waste of time.

“This kind of thing is exactly why I’m where I’m at in my life,” she said. 

“What kind of thing?”

“This spontaneous road trip…this Kerouac hump fever dream shit…all for some fucking cigarettes!”

“Baby, Jodie, they’re your family cigarettes,” I tried. “You love them.”

“I’m over it. Take me back to New York!”

Screaming, Jodie swung the door open of the moving car and almost jumped out. I pulled her in by her wrist, slammed the brakes as I veered off to the side of the road. What followed weren’t screams, but country music playing from inside of a bar called Snake Boot. I demanded we go inside. After some Texas BBQ and a few cheap beers, we danced together the whole night, made love in the back seat of the car on the outskirts of town, and were on the road again by morning.

In Santa Fe, Jodie bought a baby cactus on the side of the road. She named it Juan. In Arizona we acquired about 100 avocados for a dollar and nearly finished them all with cheap tortillas before we reached LA. Jodie was dumbstruck by the postcard palm trees next to bumper to bumper traffic, their green dagger leaves stabbing the black smog. After almost hitting a Jack Sparrow lookalike on Hollywood Boulevard, we sailed over the grapevine, north up Highway 5 where truckers blared their horns like forgotten battle cries and orange trees posed against the dry, amber landscape.

Rolling into San Francisco, into downtown, up to Pine Street and then up Grant into Chinatown, I skidded to a stop at the first convenience store we spotted. Jodie came out jiggling a pack of Red Dragons. She lit one up. I quickly snagged it from her lips.

“What the hell?” Jodie screeched.

“Lemme take you somewhere where you can really enjoy that.”

I drove her to the Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The pair of us watched the sun sink into the golden-hemmed Pacific. Jodie lit a Red Dragon and took a long victorious drag. She blew the smoke up into the encroaching fog.

“Worth it?” I asked.

“You know what,” Jodie said. She looked at the cigarette pinched between her fingers. “These taste like shit.”

Jodie punched it out on the bottom of her shoe, tucked it back into the pack, and gave me a look of wild trust spun with unbridled spontaneity.

“Where we going next?”


Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and has been published in RiverLit, Penumbra Magazine, The Turks Head Review, MusicinSf.com, and The Bay Bridged. He received the Wilner Award in Short Fiction in 2017 for his story "Into the Night" and The Clark Grossman Prize for his novella progress "The House of 21" in 2018, awarded by Lydia Kiesling, author of the novel “The Golden State”. Most recently he was accepted and attended The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver where he worked with Gabe Habash, Alexander Chee, and other gifted writers. He lives in San Francisco, California.