“Are you going to be here long?” A woman with a wide face and the kind of hairdo you have done in a beauty shop that isn’t a chain had rolled down the window of her still-chugging car.
“No,” John said.
“Because we paid to have that spot cleaned out. So it’s just common courtesy – ”
“Well I just dug myself out over there and I needed a place to move to just to be sure I could actually get out – ”
“I have my parents here so we paid to have that spot cleaned.”
Indeed there was a sour-faced reptilian woman messing with a garbage bin nearby. She gave John a look. He swallowed the look down into his stomach acids and forced it to come back out as a smile. Can’t do that too many times without replenishing the juices.
“Are you going to be here long?”
John wanted to get into it with this wide car woman. He wanted to tell her that nobody owns the street no matter how much they pay one of the young men of color to spade up their snow. He wanted to get into it with her like one of those lady-on-lady aggression videos you see on youtube: the ladypunch one, or the rhubarb thief.
Actually what he really wanted to do was lean in, inhale the aroma of her fast food interior, and say, “Why are you still living? Because take it from me, as a man who’s seen all of Netflix and Hulu and is halfway through HBOGO, it doesn’t get much better than this, right here. There’s not ever going to be some movie coming out that’s going to finally solve everything. No new season of sitcom, or Super Bowl matchup, or Christmas morning will ever justify our existence. Now, my excuse for keeping my hat in the game is I’m still somewhat young and somewhat attractive and I can sit in my living room and drink my beer in peace and hold onto a subtle and maybe even unconscious hope that someday someone will discover me at a soda fountain and change my life into something out of the Liberace movie which by the way is fabulous. But you, I don’t know what you’re in it for. Maybe it’s the hope you’ll get a big tax return this year, or your number will finally come up in the lotto, or your husband will actually clean out the gutters this weekend. But I’d be happy to take you out for a cup of coffee and have you explain it to me. You see I’m a little worried that I’m not going to be here very long, as you so presciently asked.”
“I’m moving,” is all he said.
At least you didn’t apologize, he told himself.
He got in his car and drove the suburban streets, pinched now by snow fortifications left behind by several plowings without a melt. There was a spot open, with someone’s trash can in the middle of it. You can’t call fives on a patch of asphalt, John repeated to himself as he got out of his car and moved the trash, then slid himself unevenly into the icy spot. The climate change winter was really bringing out the heart of darkness in suburbanites.
“John! There’s an omelet in the fridge for you. I’m listening to indie music! I think I like it.” Mr. Hetherington was in the spare room. Regina Spektor Pandora wafted softly through the space between.
“Hey John do you want to see ‘Frozen’ tomorrow? Everyone gay is talking about ‘Frozen.'”
“I don’t want to see ‘Frozen.'”
“I think it might be nice for you to get out.”
“I just got a good spot on the street. I’m never getting out again.”
“But why did you dig the car out if you’re just going to – ”
“You made me dig the car out, Mr. Hetherington.”
“That sounds like an evasion of the real issue, John. Oo who is this?” The song had changed.
“Well she is just a little charmer isn’t she.”
“I’m going to bed.”
“There’s a matinee tomorrow at 2:10. We could go to The Cheesecake Factory first.”
“I’m going to bed, Mr. Hetherington.”
“Wait! Come and see my new digs.”
Mr. Hetherington was hanging up the class photo of each of his kindergarten classes from a thirty-seven year career.
“It’s so I feel more at home.”
All those smiling munchkins. John looked through the years not yet hung. Toward the end there was a definite shift in pigment.
“Did you switch schools?”
“Oh yeah I transferred to a place deep in the city. Really reenergized me, revitalized my craft. I’m very thankful for those little rainbows.”**
**Mr. Hetherington did not use the word rainbows. He used a word which we aren’t going to put here.
John took twice. “Your what now?”
“Did they…ask you to call them that?”
“No of course not. I think they would have been quite offended. But whenever I thought about them, and how their opportunities in life had been so severely curtailed through no fault of their own, through their class or their genes or their lack of books in the house or the fact that they might be shot dead for listening to loud music in their own cars, well, whenever I thought of that, I had to call them rainbows, and believe that there was a reason for their inferior status, or else I would go mad. Which I did anyway, a few times in that first year, until I really accepted the system. My rainbows.”
He hammered into the wall.
“I guess that fits well enough,” John said, “after all this is the crazy room.”
“We call it the crazy room.”
“That’s lovely, John, you’ve gone and put me up in The Shining Suite. You might have mentioned.”
“No, it’s not crazy like talking to your finger. Not yet.”
“Then what’s the story? Ooo who is THIS piece of syrup on a stick?”
“This is Noah and the Whale.”
“Mmm. But it ought to be Jonah, oughtn’t it?”
“I’m going to bed.”
A dream woke him, a dream where he was himself but not himself. The mission of dream-John, he knew intuitively, was to reconquer Gladys, but he had to do it as someone else, since she was mad at him. So he had put on some kind of psychic dream disguise, though he still looked like himself. The seduction went well. They were on a bed, it felt like in a hotel, and all of a sudden Gladys said, “I know it’s you, love.” And they both started crying.
She spooned him from behind, just held him for what felt like, well, minutes, but good long ones. Then she said, “Do you want to talk about it?”
And he said, very quickly, “Yes.”
And then he had nothing to say. And then Noah’s whale came and carried them out of the flood. “Thank you,” Gladys whispered to its blowhole.
The whirr of back tires spinning in the snow. The whine of a laptop waking up. John’s nose was filled with the smell of wasted gasoline, though the window was closed.
“Ways to Get Gladys Back”
1. Decide you actually don’t mind bringing a child into the world. Then try calling.
2. Perhaps the proper tense is “having brought.” ? How far along…?
3. Time machine. Go back and never have sex with Gladys Hulce.
4. Time machine option 2. Go back and have sex with Gladys Hulce and marry her but win her over first with your rational arguments against procreation.
5. Are we sure we want Gladys back?
Close file, do not save. Check internet.
Mr. H. was in the kitchen making omelets. John called out to him.
“Laurence Olivier died of a heroin overdose.”
“He was the best.”
“He held the mirror, as twere, up to nature. I was so looking forward to seeing him in Transformers Five. But John come out here I want you to help me with this new phone I got so I can read this stuff for myself. I need to be cutting edge.”
John came to the kitchen.
“You know, Mr. H., I really hate the smell of eggs.”
“You do? You hate eggs?”
“I can eat them, but I can’t smell them. And sometimes I can’t look at them.”
“Well isn’t that special of you, John Lake. You could never just say simply no or yes to a thing. Do you like ketchup? I got some at the store yesterday because you don’t have any, like some kind of Frenchman or something, un-American. You live like a French bachelor, John: you’ve got an onion and wine in there and nothing else.”
“I like ketchup if it’s in a glass bottle. I don’t like it in the plastic bottle when it squirts out like some kind of diarrhea sound and when the crust forms around the nipple at the top.”
Mr. Hetherington just stood with his spatula arm cocked against his hip, letting John think about the twisted life path that brought him to this place of byzantine culinary prejudices.
“Well look don’t get your crusty nipples in a twist but I went ahead and got us tickets for the ‘Frozen’ matinee. You can even pick your seats out ahead of time did you know that? I got us seats in the handicapped row because with my knee I need the space. If anyone gives us a hard time I want you to act like you don’t speak English. That’s handicap enough.”
The car was still spinning in the snow outside. John twisted the blinds open: just to watch, not to help.
“What?” He peered onto the street, where his car was.
“What is it?”
John went to get his glasses. He looked out the window again. The garbage can he had moved for his parking spot was now perched atop the roof of his car.
John turned from the window, sat at the tiny table, and tried to interpret the message.
a) This car is trash.
b) Trash beats car.
c) Get this trash OUT OF HERE.
d) I see you.
e) Be my friend.
f) Burn in Hell, shitbag.
Mr. Hetherington slid a plate with an omelet on it in front of John. He squirted some ketchup from the plastic bottle. “No apologies,” he said.
Just then John’s phone rang. It was High School Someone.
“John! Hi! Is this a bad time?”
“I don’t know. They say every time has always made people think it was the worst time. Like the Gilded Age.”
HSS laughed. “Oh JOHN! So true, so true! Listen I’ll cut right to the bacon. As I said when we serendipitously had our little do-si-do, I’ve been working at Wife magazine, and we’re doing our big Valentine double issue, and I actually went ahead and nominated you for our new award.”
“Yes, and then, well, it’s supposed to be kind of a blind voting process, so we didn’t call you, we just examined your Facebook page.”
“I have a Facebook page?”
“Guilty,” Mr. Hetherington raised his hand. “I wanted to try it out but I experimented on you first in case I did anything embarrassing like said I was interested in women.”
“And you WON, John, the editors flipped! They want you!”
“Want me how?”
“To be our covergirl! You’ve been voted The Sorriest Man Alive!”
There was a decided pause at both ends.
“I have to go.”
“There’s a stipend, John, to ease any social stigmatization, though I don’t mind telling you that I think this might be a VERY rewarding distinction for the man involved. Women sort of go head over heels for the hangdog type. It’s like a Sleepless in Seattle thing.”
“I don’t know what that means.” (He didn’t: John watched movies, but Gladys remembered them.)
“It means you could be a very busy boy once this thing runs. Or, should you be looking to reconcile, it will be great exposure – your missing wife is sure to hear about it, and then she can just look you up on Facebook!”
“How much is the stipend?”
Outside, John stared at his car, in his coat boots scarf and gloves. Then he stared at the trash can on top of the car. He could not bring himself to move either of them. He looked at the house facing this part of the street, waiting to see if anyone wanted to shuffle out of it, go ten rounds, and settle this thing like primates.
Then he walked to the train.
He was early for his photo shoot so he walked around central station. Gladys knew a secret passage to the subway that allowed you to avoid the crowd and thus minimize your chances of having a trash can placed on your head. John didn’t remember where it was, but he slowly walked down each of the main corridors looking. Halfway through the search he stepped into a shop and bought an overpriced Banana Nut energy bar. He received fifty cents in change from the subcontinental woman who rang him up. The bar did in fact taste remarkably like banana nut bread thanks to chemicals from a plant in New Jersey.
On the last corridor he found the passage again, and just as he turned a corner he saw an old white man hunched into a shepherd’s crook, holding out a styrofoam coffee cup.
The spirit of Gladys has guided me here, John thought, and left me with these fifty cents to give to him. He pulled the coins out of his pocket, feeling himself to be the best person alive for what he was about to do.
The weight of two quarters in the empty cup was such a shock that the man dropped his cup. John hesitated, unsure if it would be worse or better if he helped, and anyway the hunchback was close to the ground as it was. John said “Sorry” but because he had his earbuds in it came out “SORRY” as if he had not heard his own voice in years.
John went into the park. He sat on a bench. There were no hunchbacks to give fifty cents to. There was a man covered in pigeons, but that seemed voluntary and potentially lucrative, so John paid him no mind. There was only a squirrel. John took a bill out of his wallet. He offered it to the squirrel. The squirrel stared at him.
“Don’t be proud,” John said.
On the commuter train back, the blonde woman who had taken the seat next to John asked the conductor if she could keep her ticket. It was a tentrip, with all ten punched out, but she wanted to keep it. Memories or something. The conductor smiled like he was head of the Polar Express. “It’s a fine ticket,” he said, “and you should be proud of it.” He gave it back to her.
She looked at the last punch. “What’s yours?” she said.
“They tell me it’s a goldfish, but I dunno.”
“Oh yes, of course, I see that now, it’s only that the two of them melded into one is all.”
Meanwhile a man was playing chess with his kid over the phone. The hits keep coming on the 9:00 off-peak.
Walking back John stopped in the store for dinner. He put his Fosters on the belt like two giant beer pellets. There was a on the wall showing the weather channel, but it was the forecast for Atlanta. “What do I care about Atlanta’s weather?” the cashier said. “Show me where I am!” The old lady in front of John joined in: “I talk to the TV too,” she admitted through a smile.
A moment of stranger joy, pure like an extract, like syrup tapped out of the tree. John wanted to add something, like, I masturbate in front of the TV too, but he couldn’t quite find the right wording. The old lady milked another laugh out of it, saying something everyone instantly forgot but laughed at, and then she left with her groceries.
“And how are you?” the cashier then said to John, with a tone as if they were old friends. As simple as that.
It was all John could do to make it past the Redbox and out the door. Oh God, he thought, how does this work? How do these things fit into the same existence? Goldfish and stranger joy and trash cans on cars and everything all at once all the time. Wife magazine.
Walking a still icy sidewalk not quite wide enough for two, a man in NY Jets sweats waited at a corner for John to pass him. “Thank you,” John said. “No problem,” the man said.
“Kiss me,” John said, but not aloud.
When he got home, Mr. Hetherington was tied to a chair. A woman, not unlike Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, and a small rabbitman, not unlike much at all, flanked him. The Chastain type held an object that resembled a cattle prod.
“I had to let them in, John, they said they were Fresh Direct. I love Fresh Direct.”
Chastain sized John up. “You don’t look so sorry,” she said.
John looked at himself. “Well, that’s your opinion.”
“Not when it’s a matter of fraud.” And then she zapped him.