Ketchup Sandwiches

Tom Vollman

She came at me like a spider monkey, all fists and angry teeth. Only moments earlier, she carried a yellow comforter in both arms. I barely noticed her. The comforter hit the floor a few seconds before she hit me with the force of generations.

“Muthafuckas,” she screamed. “I’m sicka all ya goddamn people.”

Her voice shrieked, violent with strain. Punches pounded my head.

“Fuck all y’all,” she railed.

Outside, spring pushed hard, but the Brooklyn winter air hadn’t quite conceded its bluster. It was Saturday and the Atlantic Avenue Target was packed.

I moved mostly out of shock and tried to shield my companion, Jessica, who was nearly six months pregnant. She needed new tights. Afterwards, we were going to go to the Flea.

I could taste the blood where I bit my tongue. It pooled against my gums, sour like the copper penny I sucked when I was 19 and tried to flip a drunk check in Elizabeth. I was driving Pauline Barnes’ car while she gave a handy to some guy named Bruce in the backseat. The penny was her idea; she said it would throw off the breathalyzer. She was full of shit. I got arrested and spent the night at Essex County too scared to close my eyes. I just stared into the blackness and touched my eyeball every now and again just to make sure it was still open. In the morning, I cried as I collected my wallet, a couple guitar picks, and my keys. The guards laughed and said it was a good thing I didn’t have to stay any longer or I’d surely become someone’s bitch.

Now, in the Target, I pulled my arms over my head because I didn’t want to hit back. I’d been in fights before and I’d been sucker punched a few times, but never by a woman. Her hands were clasped tight and they moved faster than I would’ve thought possible.

She was 5’5’’ at the most. As I moved away, I could see her ballerina flats rise up on tip-toes with almost each and every swing. It was like she was stabbing me in the head with an invisible knife. I backed into a rack of children’s windbreakers. Somehow, I caught her right wrist, then her left hand. She wrenched and twisted and kicked at my shins.

“Bitch-ass honky. I swear I’ll kill ya.”

A crowd had gathered and I could hear Jessica scream. Then, everything slowed down.

I pushed her away—my attacker—and took a step forward. I found out, minutes later, that her name was Alecia and that she was bipolar. Her sister, who came to meet her, told the cops she was off her meds.

But before that, before the officer and Alecia’s desperate pleas to not be put in cuffs, I looked at the floor and saw it—a teal-colored metal button from the Met. It was stranded—a hopeful little island—in the tangled brown threads.

Jessica’s voice came sharp as a bee sting.

“Tyne!” she bellowed.

I looked up and caught the flash of Alecia’s haymaker fist. I stumbled and she covered me like a wet blanket. Her fingernails scraped across my face before someone finally managed to pull her away.

“Why?” one of the cops asked later.

His partner frowned at the question.

I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps I had it coming. Maybe for the lies I’d told—the little lies to producers, record executives, friends and colleagues, girls I met in bars or their beds. Maybe I deserved it.

It had been more than three months since I first heard about my brother.

“Paralyzed,” my dad said, too loudly, over a lousy connection. He could have been talking about the weather.

“Prayers are what’s important now,” he added.

His voice turned paper thin and he started talking about the chaplain and my mom and suddenly it felt like all the feeling in the entire world got sucked out.

I was at the college and ducked into a unisex onesie while he spoke. The hallways were crowded. I left the door unlocked. My face looked gaunt and pasty in the bathroom’s small mirror. I touched my cheek to see if it would crumble. It didn’t. The phone grew loose in my hand and I’m not exactly sure what happened next. I remember cop cars on 67th, then a turn onto Park. I was running.

I still hadn’t been to see him—my brother. More than three months had passed and I still hadn’t been to see him. Florida, the very thought of it, seemed impossible. I hardly talked to my parents at all anymore.

One of the cops snapped his fingers in front of my face. I was back.

“You okay?” he asked.

My face was flavored with the buzz of a slow swell, but I said didn’t want to press charges.

“You sure?” the fatter of the two piped.


I paused, my stare fixed on the table top.

“I’m sure.”

Reluctantly, as if operating of their own volition, my eyes moved upward to catch one of their faces. The fatter one. Immediately, like it was on fire, I tore my gaze away.

As Jessica and I silently made our way toward the Q platform, my mind drifted to Hunter and a conversation I had a few days ago with one of my composition students.

“Yo, T,” he said just before I left.

T. That’s what they call me.

“Whatchu know ‘bout publishin’.”

I was puzzled.

“Like books and stuff,” he followed.

“A little bit,” I answered. “Why?”

“Cuz I got this book, ya know, that I been writin’—”

“Like a novel?” I queried. Then, without stopping, “One you wrote?”

“Yup,” he replied.

His name was Marcus and his front teeth, at least the ones that were visible when he spoke his slurred Brownsville drawl, were capped in gold.

“I write a lotta books. Stuff from what I been through.”

I nodded.

“Like ‘bout me and my momma back in Chicago, before we done come out here.”

“Right on,” I said.

Marcus was wearing a leather jacket that was about a size-and-a-half too big for him. Both sleeves were stitched with gold thread. On the right was Brooklyn’s, the left, Finest.

“There’s some stuff in there ‘bout New York, though, too,” he added.

His hair was like hundreds of greasy, burnt cotton balls that had been lumped together and glued to his scalp. Portions of it crawled out from beneath a flat-brimmed Yankees cap.

We talked for a while about his book. The editors he’d been speaking with worked for self-publishing firms.

“They told me I could pay to have it put out,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s what they do.”

“But the lady told me it’d be up in Barnes & Noble and stuff like that.”


“I told ‘em I wanted to just sell it—that I’d sell it to ‘em—but then she told me they don’t do nothin’ like that.”

I nodded.

“That’s their game. The money out of your pocket.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I’m after,” he replied.

His tongue tapped against his front teeth as he spoke and created a sort of lisp. It was artificial.

“I just wanna sell it, ya know. Make some scratch off it. I ain’t really care how much—I got more books,” he tapped his index finger against the brim of his hat, “in here.”

I smiled and gave him a list of some websites that detailed traditional publishers and agents, and explained, as best I could, what they did and how they operated.

“Ah, I see. It’s a hustle, then.” His teeth gleamed behind a broad smile. “Aw, man, that ain’t nothin’. I been hustling all my life. Shit.”

“It’s a hustle, that’s for sure,” I sighed.

“Well,” he replied, wrapped in a long breath, “I sure do appreciate it, ya know, you tellin’ me ‘bout this.”

“Yeah, no worries. Let me know if I can help or whatever.”

I paused.

“I’d love to read it.”

“For reals?”


“Cool,” he said and moved toward the door. “I’ll bring you a copy, then—I gotta bunch of ‘em all run off, too.”

And he did. The very next class.

The book was 134 pages long, typed in a singled-spaced, italicized font. There was no title, but the first chapter was called “Ketchup Sandwiches.” The grammar and mechanics were pretty awful, but I read all 134 pages in a day. The stories melted off the page. There were chapters about the time he did in Spofford, bits about living out of a car, and one insanely compelling section about how he and his mom escaped from one of her boyfriends with only the things they could shove into a duffel bag and his backpack. That section talked about how his mom was being beaten by the boyfriend. He wrote about how she planned the escape on a Tuesday night. He was twelve.

She woke him up in the middle of the night. He was wearing his ’85 Bears Championship sweatpants and a white t-shirt.

“But why we gotta go, Momma?” he asked.

His momma was frantically searching for his socks. When she found them, she told him to put them on and grab his coat.

“And what about school?”

She smiled as best she could. A fresh bruise formed a tight C around one side of her mouth like smeared jelly. She was quiet.

It was no use to argue with her.

Marcus moved faster than he thought he could. He grabbed his school bag and began to slide his books inside.

“No baby, not your books,” his momma said. “You gotta leave them.”

He looked up at her. His big eyes caught the glare from one of the lights in the hallway outside. The hallways, open to the elements, and the fenced-in balconies that connected them, parsed the front of the Robert Taylor Homes. Marcus hated that project and the men who ran the corridors.

“We’ll get new ones, I promise,” she sniffled, “when we get where we going.”

“Where is we goin’?” he asked.

“I don’t know just right now,” she answered. Her hair was pulled back and tucked up under a dirty knit hat.

Marcus dumped out his books, but stood holding To Kill a Mockingbird.

“I gotta bring this one, Momma,” he pled.

She looked at him and continued to shove clothes into her duffel bag.

“Because of Scout,” he pressed. “She brave. She can help us.”

His momma stood there silently, a lone sweater in her hands.

“Okay, honey,” she nodded, returning to the packing. “Okay.”

He wrote about how for the next few days, he and his mom ate ketchup sandwiches in the car as they drove. She only had money for gas—they ran most of the tolls—and just enough to get them to her sister’s house in Cleveland, 350 miles away.

“I was never unhappy, though,” he wrote, “there with Momma, in the Buick, on the road. Whenever I see ketchup now or have a hamburger or anything, I think about it. It wasn’t nothing, really, though.”

My focus returned as a Manhattan-bound, Broadway Express rattled into the station. I had a show later that night at Cake Shop. When I hopped on stage, my eye was swollen, but not as bad as it was earlier while Jessica and I waited for the cops to take our statements in the Atlantic Center’s security office. There were so many video screens in that office; I wondered why it took so long for security to make their way up to the second floor. Someone in the Cake Shop crowd asked, after my second song, what had happened to my face. I smiled, as best I could, and squinted into the stage lights.

“Nothing,” I replied, sheepishly. I really should have said everything.

I’m not sure it was my fault—the attack in the Target—but I’m not sure it wasn’t, either. I’m not even sure it matters. Marcus had his ketchup sandwiches because that’s the way it was. I had a black eye and a scratched face because that’s the way it is. And I don’t have any answers for my parents or my brother. I’m starting to feel like maybe that’s just the way it is, too. It’s not my fault, entirely, but I’m not innocent, either. Maybe the secret is to accept the possibility of being licked from the very beginning. The redemption lies in doing whatever anyway, despite the consequences.


Tom Vollman is enrolled in a doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently, he teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Tom hails from Brooklyn, NY. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tom likes Greg Dulli, Raymond Carver, Tom Colicchio, Willy Vlautin, and Jean Baudrillard.  He dislikes Confederacy of Dunces, Rush, and Immanuel Kant. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling and will be releasing a new record in late 2013.

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