“Which is better, a flush or a straight?”
Raul ruffled the tops of his cards and bit his lip. He nudged Hammersmith, who was staring into the rafters of the theater, his jaw slack.
“What?” Hammersmith asked groggily.
Julia returned from the bathroom and opened another can of grapefruit soda.
“Which is better, a flush or a straight?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
Hammersmith got up to stretch and threw his cards carelessly on the table, revealing three jacks.
“Damn, you fold with a hand like that Hammersmith? Damn.”
“I don’t fold. I just don’t want to play cards anymore.”
“I get your Cheetos.”
“What do you want to do?” Julia asked, looking at Hammersmith while laying her head on the table and allowing her arms to dangle to the floor.
“The play, man! Let’s do the fucking play!”
“Why do you have to use the f-word all the time?” asked Raul.
“What play?” asked Julia.
“The fucking play my friend wrote. Didn’t you read it?”
Julia ransacked her memory. “Hmmmm. The musical? ‘Never Met a Penguin’ … ‘Never Met a Pencil-pusher’ … ‘Never Pounced a…'”
“What? No, the three-act play my friend wrote. It had two males and a female. It’s perfect.”
“What was it called?”
“Shit. What was it called?” Hammersmith paced the stage. He stopped downstage and looked out over the empty seats.
“I read it,” said Raul quietly.
“Oh, yeah?” Hammersmith wheeled around. “It was good, right?”
“Eh, I don’t know. It was okay but I didn’t like the part you penciled for me. Cliché machismo latino.”
“Oh, that play!” cried Julia. “I play a total slut. No. Sorry to your friend, but he’s a pig.”
“Oh, come on, it’s a fucking comedy! You guys are going to pull that PC bullshit on me? Now? Here?” He looked from Julia to Raul and back again. “Just to pass the time. Please? Pretty please?”
“You got the script?” asked Julia.
A pause. “I remember it pretty well. You both read it, right? We can fill in the blanks.”
Raul sighed and rose. “I’m tired of winning at poker anyway. First scene was in a nightclub, right?”
“Right!” said Hammersmith. “The table can be the bar. Let’s just move it to the side.”
Julia rose and faced the non-existent audience and let out a piercing scream. It was her usual warm up, and Hammersmith and Raul were stoically prepared with fingers in ears.
Hammersmith, the biggest and strongest, lifted the sheet metal while Raul, the smallest and nimblest, slipped through the hole to the storeroom. Julia, by general agreement the smartest, looked on with hands on hips.
“For the love of god,” she called, “no more cheetos.”
Raul passed the food up — cans of spicy green beans, peaches, tuna, pinto beans, french onion soup; bags of tortilla chips, beef jerky, salted peanuts; boxes of graham crackers, butter cookies, croutons; bottles of water, sweet tea. The alcohol was all gone, the bread was stale, and an entire refrigerator of hot dogs and beef patties had been left to rot, a thin magnetic seal the only thing keeping the stench at bay.
They each carried a cardboard box as they made their way under a yellowish-gray sky back to the theater. Hammersmith balanced his box on his left arm while lugging a gallon bottle of water in his right hand.
“How much water is left?” Julia asked Raul.
“Five or six gallons.”
A distant explosion echoed through the canyons of the warehouse district. Julia shuddered and quickened her pace.
They had been at the theater when the first bombs fell. Raul had watched from the roof as his own apartment building was hit. Hammersmith had proved his worth by leading them to the stockroom of the small, damaged grocery, and Julia had finally reached her sister by phone to tell her they were hunkering down for the time being. The attack started on a Sunday morning, when the neighborhood around the theater was empty. On Monday, nobody had showed up for work. The desertion made the place feel relatively safe.
Hammersmith stopped short. A dog up the road was holding down something with its paw and tearing at it with its teeth. It looked up at them briefly before going back to work.
“What’s it got?” asked Raul.
“You don’t want to know,” replied Hammersmith.
They entered through the stage door and locked it behind them.
Julia backed up against the table. She turned her head to the side, arched her back and raised her right leg, touching the floor with the tip of her big toe. If she had been wearing a short slit skirt, as she supposed her character would, her thigh would have been exposed.
“‘Hey, chica, you want a real man?'” prompted Hammersmith from the wing behind Raul.
“I’m not saying that,” Raul protested.
“He’s right, the dialogue is shit,” added Julia.
“Fine. So say what you want.” Hammersmith paced, hands in pockets.
“Why do I have to say anything at all?” Raul stalked Julia, suave and sensuous. He stopped in front of her, laid two fingers on the side of her chin and turned her head to look at him. Her eyes implored him to be gentle.
Hammersmith entered. “You goddamned wetback! Get away from my girl!”
Julia looked around Raul. “I thought he was supposed to kiss me.”
“You want him to kiss you?” Hammersmith asked in a strained voice.
“I thought he was supposed to?”
Raul broke character and walked to the back of the stage, stretched. “I’m taking a break,” he said, exiting.
Hammersmith paused for a moment, tapping his foot. “I think they’re interrupted before they kiss. They kiss later.”
“I don’t think so. If they kiss at all, it is here.”
They stared at each other for a moment, and then the lights went out. The auditorium, of course, had no windows, and so the darkness was complete. Julia sighed. A regular creaking in the stage floor indicated that Hammersmith had begun to pace.
“We need to get out of the city,” said Julia.
“They’ll come back on,” said Hammersmith.
After a moment Julia whispered, “They might not.”
The creaking stopped. “Is the play terrible?”
“My friend worked pretty hard on it.”
A pause. “You wrote it, didn’t you Hammersmith?” Hammersmith didn’t respond. “Didn’t you?”
“Okay, yes.” He laughed weakly and then was silent. The next words he spoke were much closer than Julia expected.
“Do you like Raul?”
“What? No! I mean, yes, I like him. He’s a really nice guy. And he’s a good actor.”
“Jesus, what is wrong with you? I don’t have the hots for him. Is this middle school?”
“What about me? Do you like me?”
Julia was silent, an unreadable blank.
“If I was the the last man on earth…”
The half-question hung for a moment like a neon sign in the darkness. A clatter and thump came from backstage.
“Aiii!” Raul screamed. “Guys, this sucks.”
The lights came back on, miraculously, but they decided they would set out the following day. First, though, they would put on a performance.
“Look!” Hammersmith held up a hand-drawn poster.
“‘The Last Man on Earth,'” read Raul.
“A playbill? Seriously?”
Hammersmith’s face fell.
“No, I like it! It’s brilliant!” Julia clapped her hands. “Paste it up outside!”
They ransacked wardrobe for the dress rehearsal. Julia wore Anita’s dress from West Side Story, and one of the Shark’s outfits suited Raul. Hammersmith went with a suit from Guys and Dolls.
Raul backed Julia into the bar, and Hammersmith came storming in.
“Back up, you cockroach!” he screamed, improvising, and retrieved a large silvery handgun from his vest pocket. He leveled it at Raul.
Raul and Julia stood with their mouths hanging open.
“Say your line, motherfucker.” Hammersmith breathed menacingly.
“Hammersmith?” Raul pleaded.
The clap of the gunshot made Julia cover her ears as she crouched defensively. She saw Raul face down on the floor. Hammersmith shifted his aim, and she looked down the barrel of the gun.
“You asshole!” Raul rolled on his back and started to laugh. “Jesus!”
Hammersmith lowered the gun, a look of genuine surprise on his face.
“I didn’t think you guys would actually fall for it!” He laughed uneasily. “The looks on your faces.”
Julia said nothing. She rose, brushed down her dress and exited the stage.
Julia was no longer in the mood for the charade of “opening night,” as Hammersmith called it, but she went along to get along. The performance was scheduled for 8pm. As the time approached, Hammersmith continually peeked through the curtains, as if the theater was really filling up with a paying audience. He laughed nervously and fussed with the cuffs of his suit.
The performance went off smoothly, despite Julia’s disengagement and Raul’s uneasiness. At the end Hammersmith took their hands and marched them to the front of the stage. He bowed to each side, saluted the balcony and blew kisses to the orchestra.
When at last he went backstage, he rubbed his hands together.
“What a premiere! I think they really liked it!”
Raul and Julia gave each other concerned glances.
“Oh, come on, you guys! I’m only having some fun!”
He looked to Julia with a desperate smile that faded as she turned without a word and went to the bathroom.
Hammersmith sullenly loaded a backpack with supplies. Julia tried to reach her sister on the phone but couldn’t get through. Raul had more luck with his cousin, who tearfully offered a place for any and all.
The morning was crystalline, pleasantly chill and quiet. They met others on the street and whenever they did they would all nod and grimace and share what they knew about which neighborhoods had been worst hit and where fighting might still be taking place. There were no bombs, was no clatter of gunfire.
Since it was on the way, they checked in at Julia’s sister’s house and found it intact and her sister at home. Sam was a decade older than Julia, gray-haired, fierce and warm. She fed them fresh food and they stocked her cupboards with tuna and beef jerky. She made space for three to sleep.
Raul thanked her profusely, but having made an arrangement with his cousin he couldn’t leave him wondering where he was. Sam’s phone was not working, and they had learned that the entire cellular network was offline, whether through collateral damage or sabotage.
They parted mid-afternoon with tears and long hugs. Raul grabbed Hammersmith around his middle, ignoring Hammersmith’s reserve.
“I’ll see you soon, buddy,” quaked Hammersmith. “What’s with the long goodbye? I’ll see you in the footlights!”
That night Hammersmith and Julia laid on air mattresses in Sam’s living room, Julia staring at a pug figurine and Hammersmith picking distractedly at the shag carpet.
“I hated it when you pulled out that gun, Hammersmith. I really hated it.”
“It’s too real right now. The guns, the bombs, the bodies…” A clock on the wall ticked unevenly. Hammersmith wondered whether the tick would fade away or drive him insane. “And you freaked me out a little with your jealousy,” Julia continued. “You’re a nice guy, Hammersmith. I like you, and…”
“It’s not real,” said Hammersmith in an oddly pinched voice.
“What isn’t real?”
After 10 ticks of the clock Hammersmith said, “Any of it.”
They were silent for a minute, Julia at a loss for an appropriate verbal response.
Hammersmith got up on an elbow and looked at her. “What guns? Other than the one that I pulled, loaded with fucking blanks, you haven’t seen any guns. What bodies?”
“What was the dog eating, Hammersmith?”
Hammersmith laid back down. “You didn’t see anything. What if I told you it was a package of beef jerky. The poor bugger couldn’t get the plastic open.”
“It wasn’t beef jerky.”
“I think it was a rat, actually. Looked furry. Anyway, you didn’t see it, didn’t look, so what does it matter? Should I tell you it was a guy’s arm? I caught the glint of a ring on one of the fingers. Is that horrible enough for you?”
Silence. Julia turned to face the wall and pulled her covers up.
In the morning Hammersmith was not on his mattress and he was not in the kitchen. Sam entered carrying a cup of coffee. She stopped at the window and pointed out. Julia joined her and saw Hammersmith sitting on the front steps, leaning back and looking at the sky, a backpack slumped at his side. Julia poured herself some coffee and went outside.
He rose and hung the backpack from his shoulder. “Well, I’m off.”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes, of course! The theater. Perfectly comfortable.”
“What? You’re going back there? But it’s…”
Hammersmith took Julia’s hand, ostensibly to shake it, but then held it up to his mouth to kiss the knuckles. Julia let out a burst of laughter and Hammersmith looked up at her uncertainly.
“Jesus, Hammersmith.” She held her coffee out to the side and gave Hammersmith a hug with her other arm. “Take care of yourself.”
He set off down the street, his gaze up, his step jaunty. There was an orange traffic cone in the street for some reason, crushed and laying on its side. He did a circle around it, his arms spread out like airplane wings.
David Hammond lives and dreams in Virginia with his wife and two daughters. His short stories will appear or have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Gravel, Icebox Journal and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. More of his writing can be found at oldshoepress.com.