All That Hustle
JoAnna Novak

A curvy man stands outside the Tapestry Health for Women, staring at his compact, where he sees in the mirror lilac powder pooling in his pockmarked eyelids and the seam of the clinic’s door that will open to reveal Aura and the results of the dipstick.

Shift starts at four. On the third floor of the Wallmaker Building, Tapestry is a plastic sign on the only windowless door. J.R. has fifteen minutes to hoof two blocks, fine, but right now time feels like standardized-test time, each second pressurized and ringing steel in his gauged ears.

“I am le freak,” he thinks, taking three steps forward and a few back, the way his fourth-grade teacher had demonstrated a line dance to Le Chic’s disco hit eight years ago, when he’d still had a kindergarten Don Juan rep from jungle gym days of trying to kiss girls’ Barbies with his first real bud, the goober-cheeked Joey Conte, who always took their wooing one step further and decapitated the dolls.

But fatherhood would not be a joke for J.R. Buster, and he stops grooving, even though the ephedrine he buys from Smart Mart, behind the counter on a rack beside the lava glass bongs, is kicking in, making him dancey. He has a vision: like a time-traveling tooth fairy, he’s sneaking into the pink-curtained bedrooms of girls he once knew, firmly popping all the blonde heads back on their Barbies and Skippers, even using the little purple plastic brushes and detangling their synthetic manes.

He wanders down the hall, pausing at a hypnotist’s office. A dirty straw doormat says “Wipe Off Your Problems,” “Problems” splotched with, from the shape and smell of it, pee. Through the window in the door, he sees a German Shepherd disgorging a firecrackered lobster shell with his tongue.

J.R. doesn’t like dogs. He’s never had a pet. Mom wouldn’t let him collar anything with fur, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t dad a child to the hizzy, with Bomb Pops and Mario Karts and Chevy Chase-style TLC.

The hallway houses Tapestry and all the other doors Aura is not behind. So many rooms one might need. J.R. thinks restaurants make you forget this. Patrons, FOH, kitchen, the bar, everyone. They trick you into believing life is but this meal, that plate.

J.R. walks the hall, his right leg dragging from the time he jumped from an apple tree, when he and some friends in ninth grade would go “apple baking” and get high in the Dumsfeld orchard. Maybe it was more than a sprain, but he never found out: they couldn’t afford the hospital, so Mom nabbed a pair of Vicks-scented crutches from the nursing home where she portioned stewed prunes in the basement cafeteria.

Here is a door painted sky blue and a window unto an orange-walled yoga studio, where a blonde Amazonian woman splattered with tattoos shakes green glitter on her arms: she’s no baby mama. At whatever sort of office belongs to an esquire, a yellow bird with a black throat perches in a dumb cane.

It’s the same plant his father bought when he moved out of J.R.’s mom’s one-bedroom. There were some visits, preteen thumb sucking and leaf chewing, to dare fate, test the staunchness of truth, to see if a tree would have sway in J.R. Buster’s life. Could it unbust his parents’ marriage? Wipe off his Wet ‘n Wild eyeliner so he and his father could be two men together? Take away his falsetto?

No. The esquire’s dumb cane bodes neutral.

He’d never got much smarter than his sixth grade ISATs. How else to explain Aura, who made pastries, his shift at Clemenzo’s? They’d got to talking about Freddie Mercury in a joking way over the line a few months ago, and after close-up they’d gone for Malibu and Sprites at The Red Door. J.R. bought them 4:00 a.m. fritters from Adam Donut with his serving tips, and they’d parked by the grove of picnic tables where a premature sunrise lit the fiery piñata guts extruded all over the barbecue pits, and a companionable horniness led J.R. to recline his seatback, and from there—

Now the question was, would his baby wear eyeliner, too? Would they be two men together? Would a child of his know how to open doors and leave the table, know what to do when a strange woman twice his age came running down a hall waving a slip of paper, wearing all the expression of a potted plant?


JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and the editor of Tammy. The author of four chapbooks, her first full-length collection of poetry, IT HURTS WHEN YOU SPREAD ME SO THIN, will be published in 2016. You can find her at

“All That Hustle” is the runner-up of the 2015 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction Contest judged this year by Ander Monson. Please see our contest page for more information.