Prose by Vlad Krakov
Art by Paew Chantrakul
In those days, we didn’t really know what vegans were. There were no vegan options at the 7-11, the Fresh Slice, or at Ali Baba’s Shawarma Stop. When Quinn Holmes first explained to us, three sweaty children standing on a street corner, that he was raised vegan, and what that meant, we were horrified.
“You mean you’ve never eaten meat?” asked Roshan, a fistful of tzatziki-dripping beef donair in his left hand, the oils soaking through the wax paper into his meaty palm, the sleepy eye of his belly button protruding from underneath his Puma shirt.
“Well, I have. I do sometimes! Just not in front of my mom,” Quinn confessed, scratching his head. “I love bacon,” he added weakly.
We looked at his stick-like alabaster limbs protruding from his earth tone clothing, his long frizzy ginger hair nearly down to his waist, his heavy-lidded eyes, unconvinced.
“Then why didn’t you get anything in there?” Abdul countered between bites of his sizzling wrap.
“I – I don’t have that much money right now. That was like what, eight bucks? That’s kind of a rip-off.”
“Yeah, you watched me buy it. You were standing next to me-”
“Besides, I’m not that hungry right now.”
“C’mon. We’ve been out here since, when?” Abdul groped inside of his basketball shorts for his flip phone, but I beat him to it with a resounding snap of my Motorola Krzr.
“My mom texted me at 12. So, about four hours. Three and a half,” I announced.
Abdul, pretending to doubt my time-keeping abilities, unholstered his flip phone with a proud cowboy-like snap, and peered at its sun-drowned screen, hunching forward with a mouth full of meat and tzatziki sauce.
“Hey! How the hell did you get that!” Roshan cried, turning back around after flinging the last of his tomato slices onto the baking ground of the freeway-adjacent parking lot. “It was in my pocket! And Mom told me to hold onto the phone from now on, since you broke the last one!”
“Shut up. Yep, three and a half, maybe four hours. You must be hungry, Quinn.”
“Nah, I don’t get that hungry, uh, very much,” he replied.
“Let me buy you a donair,” Abdul offered, staring at him.
It was no light matter. Even the closest of friends hardly ever bought one another candy or slurpees, let alone $8 donair wraps. When they did, it was typically on a strict loan system, sometimes with interest terms negotiated upon in raised voices in front of a baffled cashier. When food was shared, it was generally from the pantry.
“You still owe me $3.50, you snake!” Roshan cried out, half-a-block down, swivelling around on the blocky concrete parking lot barrier upon which he practiced his trapeze skills while eating.
Fidgetingly, Quinn finally assented. The four of us grimly, officially, marched back into Ali Baba’s Shawarma Stop. The two teen-aged attendants, brothers enjoying the mid-afternoon lull behind a fridge full of Cokes and Sunkist Juices, peered around in matching baseball visors, intrigued by the sound of nearly synchronized marching footsteps.
“Hi, yes. Another donair wrap please,” Abdul commanded, with the bravado of a youth on their first sanctionable visit to a bar. The electrical saw came out, shaving thin, juice-dripping brown-black strips off the rotating hulk of beefmeat, with a sheet of foil behind and underneath it collected untold greasy meat syrups, whose smell thickly permeated everything both within the small building and across the humming parking lot outside to the very street corner.
“Would you like cheese with that, boss?” the tense attendant asked. All four of us stared at him wildly.
Abdul, ever with a keen sense for suspense, drama, and tragedy, turned around and repeated the question to Quinn, who was standing two steps behind Abdul, nearly receding into the tall ferns and framed photos of Persian ruins that covered the entirety of the back wall. “Yeah. Sure.”
With a flurry of elaborate hand motions, the dreaded wrap was entombed in wax paper and a plastic bag, the numbers were dialed on the cash register, the sum was requested: “That’ll be $9.49, sirs.”
A dull pause. Flies whirled. The heat pressed down on us.
“$9.49! Brother. Sir. Señor! Compadre!” Abdul began to get worked up, with the same boldness with which he furiously negotiated his righteousness with his teachers, with his parents, with his basketball court-side friends, not so much with genuine anger as with secret excitement and zeal at the opportunity to exercise his mastery of rhetoric and persuasion. “We were in here not two minutes ago, and it was seven dollars and ninety nine cents.” The elder brother, glancing over again, began to walk over to stand by his brace-mouthed younger brother. His chest was broad, and he had a prominent cubic zirconia studs in each earlobe.
“The cheese is extra, sir,” the elder brother boomed.
“The cheese is extra,” Abdul repeated, half to the attendant, half to the rest of us. There was a hint of mocking in his voice, but it was an automatic response, a last resort, and it was ambiguous enough to also be possibly interpreted as self-deprecation. His rhetorical fury was winding down. He could see he was, more or less, in the wrong. But Abdul was not about to accept that.
“Can you put the cheese back.”
“Abdul!” I protested, tugging at his elbow, horrifically embarrassed. I began to fish in my pockets for change.
“Could you put the cheese back?” he repeated. He was donning his devilish grin. Nothing was serious to him. Yet everything was worth fighting for.
“No, sir, I cannot put the cheese back,” the fatigued younger brother said. He was exhausted from being next to the sweltering heat lamps pointed at the masses of meat sumptuously rotating, not to mention the summer sun. He was being incredibly patient, it seemed to me. I was red-faced. The younger brother, resigned, unfurled the wax paper. “It is already melting, see? It is all melted.” He lifted it to eye level for us to see. “I cannot put the cheese back.”
“Well, I don’t have $9.49. You should have told us it was extra.”
“Abdul!” I cried, unreasonably horrified at the scene I was witnessing. Roshan, too, was trying to get him to calm down, but, unlike me, was uncontrollably laughing. Meanwhile, Quinn had fully disappeared into the ferns and into ancient Persia. “Abdul!” I repeated, “I have money! Look, I have…I have enough to cover the cheese!”
“No,” said Abdul darkly. “No. I don’t want to pay for any of this if this is how they do business.”
“I have enough for the whole thing. I have enough for the whole thing!” I cried out, hot-eared, listening with wonder and pain at the words coming out of my own mouth.
I had sixty-five cents left for the rest of the week. It was a Tuesday.
Back in the parking lot, a shouting match ensued.
“You owe me nine dollars and forty-nine cents, you f-f-fucker!” I cried, still red.
“Do not. Do not! Did I ask you for nine dollars and forty-nine cents? Did anyone ask you to pay the nine dollars and forty-nine cents? No. So no, I do not!” Abdul was getting gleeful over the drama at hand, over the boisterous argumentation, while I recoiled into myself and, in some dark boiler room in my cranium, shook with fury at this betrayal. I already knew how this would end.
“F-f-fuck you, assfucker!” I retorted, incapable of processing such injustice. Inside, the two brothers were leaning over the counter, shoulder to shoulder, watching us with wonder in their eyes. The elder one took out his flip phone, began searching for the video recording function.
“Oh, calm down, Sven; he’s obviously going to pay you back,” Roshan negotiated, raising his thick-slabbed hands as a symbolic barriers between Abdul and I. “Right, Abdul?”
“Nuh-uh. Think of all the Nutella sandwiches we’ve fed him over the years, Roshan. Those add up to, like, at least one hundred dollars. Probably two hundred!”
“That’s pantry food!” Roshan and I replied in unison. Yet Abdul only smiled snakily, as he always did when proven wrong,
“Hey – where’s Quinn?” Abdul asked, looking around with an expression of feigned concern.
“Yeah, where is Quinn?” Roshan asked, beginning to swivel around as well, oblivious to the tactic.
Quinn walked straight-spined out of the bathroom at the back of Ali Baba’s, past the healthy ferns rocking hypnotically in the turns of the fan, past the sand-swirled ruins of Ancient Persia, into the frame of the older brother’s flip phone video recording, whose screen now in its granularity and dull tones displayed Roshan, Abdul, and I peering in through the glass, calm and unified as Quinn opened the glass door, the bells at its crest jingling merrily, and, finally, the four of us forming an equidistant square, as any group of four young boys seem to have the primordial instinct to do when it is time to negotiate.
“Hey, Quinn. Listen, homie,” Abdul began, making sure to be over-endearing to add a veneer of sarcasm to his expression of concern, “you don’t actually have to eat this if you don’t want to. I could bring this to my dad or something-”
Calmly, Quinn took the entombed wrap out of Abdul’s gesturing hand, crinklingly unsheathed it, and took a rich bite. “C’mon,” Quinn said with a mouth still half-full, ignoring our uncertain stares, “let’s go to DLG. I’m tired of standing around here.” Quinn began to walk down the street. “C’mon!”
Slowly, a maniacal laugh ripped out of Roshan, his head bent skywards and knees slightly bent, and he poked me forcefully in the chest to communicate his strange-borne elation. Abdul tried to suppress an amazement-betraying smile, but, failing and then giving up, joined his brother with a similar high-toned laughter. I took my thick-goggled glasses off to wipe the moisture off of my still-hot cheeks. We followed Quinn down the street. Adjusting my glasses, breath uneven and still chuckling, I raced last.
Upon a grassy slope dotted with windbent daisies, between two nook-filled pyramidal evergreens, with the stout, waist-high fence protecting us from the street above, with the green immaculately level grass field of the elementary school sprawling below, Quinn sat, knees to chin, eating his chicken shawarma wrap.
“Hey! Let me have some of that,” Abdul said. “After all, I bought it for you.” Hidden from me, he winked at Quinn.
“You what! You what now!” I began, standing up and gesticulating with fluster, one among four tiny figures at the edge of a vast field. Abdul cackled with relish and then shrieked with emphatic terror. I tackled him and we went tumbling down the hill. The wild animal noises of four young boys echoed into the middle reaches of the atmosphere, would have been heard by the curious new-coming noses pressed to glass within low-flying airplanes, if it had not been for their own engine-rumbling and air-shearing sounds replying.
Piano lessons tinkled in the neat-gridded, grand-housed distance to the up-sloping North. Mice scurried in the dark of the locked cafeteria, across god-like bands of dust-suspending sunlight, between folded tables lining the wall, towards dried splotches of pasta sauce behind the radiator. Somewhere, outside, crows flew into the humid haze, disappearing into the white-and-blue to the South and, as the down-sloping land peeled away from them and they gained their altitude, cawed madly and life-thirstily. All hungered.