My head is a swirling mess before the first customer rattles the change in his pocket, like I'm a dog that must be instructed. He is a blinding, shimmering hope for designer fashion. I step up to the register, and the walls rush in. My heart is in my feet, in my worn out shoes, and in the pulse of the forthcoming receipt. It beats to the sound of the sighs that the man lets loose as he taps his shoes and looks at my fumbling hands that toil in his presence. My head was meant to be down and his arms were meant to be folded. I am the layer of dirt beneath the salt of the earth. I am a supermarket employee. The father, the mother, and the daughter, the broken down family, look on as I drop the change into the designer man's hand, and the order of things is made clear. And then I see the little pudgy girl tell the designer man his jewelry's pretty. And my middle class heart aches with guilt.
"It's called holy water, and I'm gonna freaking bottle it. You take a shot of vodka and you crush Vicodin into it. I woke up outside Danny's house." Wal**** is packed and there are too many old people. Since the store is always shorthanded, they shifted us around like a bullpen, and today I'm in the deli. Luckily, Sean is with me in the trenches. Sean, the great escape artist. The farther he could get from his own brain, the better.
"Sean, doesn't this ham look like a wet ass?" I casually say, in full view of a couple in their sixties.
"Oh God, stop. I'm seriously gonna throw up on this machine. Can I help the next customer?" We both act like morons all the time, but it helps to take the edge off. It's not like anybody takes us seriously, right? "Matty boy, c'mon and get your ass in gear. There's like twenty people waiting," Sean hollers at me. A middle-aged soccer mom sticks her elbows out on the counter and glares at me.
"What can I get for ya?" I ask in the most obnoxious way I can.
"I need two pounds of turkey, thinly sliced. The last time I came here you cut it too thick, and I nearly choked on it." I look up at Sean to see if he caught it, and by the shaking of his shoulders I can tell that he has.
"I would never make it too thick for ya, ma'am. I can show restraint," I say calmly. She gives me a weird look and then steps to the side, while I put a foul looking piece of bird on the slicer. If you don't ask me for a special brand, then you're giving me permission to take out whatever heinous meat we have lying in those counters. And for people like this, I took pleasure in finding the one that was just about to turn.
"You might need to kill that one again," whispers Sean, as I shave off thinly sliced layers of the shit.
"Dude, this lady has frying pan make-up," I whisper back.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means she puts on her make-up with a frying pan!" We hiss lightly until our self-control deteriorates, and we are making a "scene" as our five managers say.
Our lunch break slowly approaches, and soon we are sitting underneath the bleachers of our old middle school, conveniently located behind Wal****. The two of us never could have been friends back then. Sean was always surrounded by crowds of adoring underclassmen, praising his consumption abilities. "This lady was trying to talk down the price of a pound of cheese. It was like dealing with a negotiating hooker. Every time I told her I couldn't change the price, she kept pushing it," Sean moans.
"I hate how people think we have control over this shit. Like I can go and call the owner of the place. 'Yes ma'am hold on a minute. Let me get the president of the company on the phone. We'll see what he can do about your cheese situation.'"
"Exactly. Are you coming out tonight, Matt? Becky's gonna be there. Didn't you guys fool around last week?" says Sean.
"Yeah, maybe she'll wear a different shirt this time. Whenever we hang out it's always that blue thing," I say. "I just think it's time she got another shirt, that's all. It's the same one she wore in her yearbook photo. I'm tired of it."
"Relax. She doesn't have a lot of money to spend on nice shit," Sean rationalizes.
"Well that's no excuse to look dirty when we go out." I realize I'm going too far as the words leave my mouth.
"I'm gonna let you cool down, hotshot. If you can turn off the asshole, maybe we'll talk some more later," says Sean. I don't want to go to the party tonight. I know it's going to be exciting and wild, but if I go and if I let loose, I might wake up and be shopping in this hellhole. Becky will not be my big pudgy wife. She needs a new shirt.
Lightning looks like firecrackers against the dark backdrop of the South Oyster Bay. We made it out of our day weathered, but very alive, especially in the face of this ocean storm. "Matt, we've gotta go soon. Once that storm moves in, we're soaked. I don't want to look like a wet dog at this shindig," Sean says, without taking his eyes off the water. "C'mon, it's B.Y.O.B. I wanna try this fake I.D. I got," he declares proudly, showing me a picture of a balding Middle Eastern man.
"It's a spitting image. Maybe the liquor store hired Stevie Wonder," I say. We get in his car, and we drive along the edge of our seaside town to Vampy's Liquor, which is across the street from our second home. Wal**** looms behind us as we climb out of the station wagon. It's got a prominent position in this area, economically and geographically. It's really the Atlantic City of Amityville in that it acts as a cyclone for our finances. The whirling maelstrom takes it all in and spits nothing back at us except low paying jobs. It appropriated countless families as the personal attendants of college kids and executives driving through to their beach houses. We're not even specks on the big picture. We're a pit stop.
"Okay, before we do this, I'm just telling you now: do not get giddy. I'm surprised that last time he didn't just pull the gun out from underneath the desk and shoot you," Sean instructs me. I'm bad at keeping a straight face. But that's all the more reason to be around someone funny.
"All right, as of now, I am cold-blooded. Let's pretend we just killed someone," I say, already breaking up.
"No! The point is to be relaxed, not intense." Sean looks down and takes a deep breath. I open the door in a mockingly gentle way, like someone is sleeping inside, and Sean gives me an irritated look.
"Good evening, gentleman. Need some help?" says a seriously scary-looking clerk. He's got a blanket of tattoos across the visible parts of his body that makes him look like a native of some as yet-undiscovered Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking culture.
"Yeah, me and my friend would like a bottle of the cheapest vodka you've got," says Sean.
"Sure fella, just let me see your I.D." Sean whips the fake license out on the desk before the clerk finishes his sentence, and places his hand on the top of the card like a witness puts his hand on a Bible. He's a real smooth customer before we actually have to do anything. "Yeah, this looks fine. Here's your booze, boys," the clerk says, in a suddenly chipper fashion. As we stumble across what feels like a miles long convenience store, being careful not to trip or breathe too heavily, the clerk calls out, "Give my regards to Allah, Habeeb," and bursts out laughing. With red faces, we run the rest of the way to the car.
We pull in front of a lit up old house with aluminum siding that appears to have been painted with urine. "Are you nervous? Don't be a psycho. You don't have to talk to anyone," Sean says, downing his fourth shot of the kerosene we had purchased.
"No, I'm a pretty social guy. It's just that none of these people are worth talking to," I say, fanning Sean's breath away from my nose.
"Don't be a fag. You can't get drunk from breathing in alcohol."
"I'm a skinny guy. And I haven't eaten all day. I don't want to take any chances." Lately I've been avoiding drinking, or anything that makes me care less about the blander parts of my day. Sean's on a slow motion, inebriated ride to a life inside of that easy listening prison. I'm completely aware of everything that's happening to me. It's just moving too fast for me to stop it.
"We rolled up listening to Steeler's Wheel. How bad-ass is that?" Sean says, beaming with credibility. We may be socially awkward, financially destitute, and, at times, functionally retarded, but we know music. Nobody knows the degree to which our hearts soar when the soft radio station at our factory plays a flute solo with the slightest hint of a Beatles melody. We can hear the faintest impression of those words, "Sexy Sadie, what have you done?", and even in its most neutered form, it takes us beyond the meat and the free samples to the edge of the Long Island Sound. It means so much more when you hear it there. We stand on our tip-toes and lean on the slicers to catch the full waves of its power, and the song feels like it's being played at our eulogies.
"Okay, how does my hair look?"
"Sean, you are a stud. What should I do if Becky talks to me tonight?" I ask sheepishly. "Dead Flowers" bleeds in, and the Progressive Folk Mix #4 reveals its swan song.
"Just do whatever turns you on," he says, still fixing his already combed head.
"Okay, so like a Nike commercial, but I might get arrested."
"Matt, this night gives us permission to gel our hair and act like assholes. Tomorrow we can be slaves again, all right?"
"Sounds good. Is this Townes Van Zandt's version or Gram Parson's?"
"Gram never covered this. It's Van Zandt. Gram would never let a track finish without a steel guitar, you know that. Let's make it happen, hotshot." We thrust our doors open and prepare for boundlessness.
There is no wading tonight; I step through the door, and I am fully submerged. A red-faced twelve year-old lying on the floor greets us warmly by reaching over and rubbing Sean's shoe. Some kid we know from work owns this house, and by the looks of it, he's living by himself. It's strange to think that after everyone leaves tonight, he'll be completely alone. "There are my favorite meat packers! Did you have enough time to wash off the salami?" says Pat, a mainstay in the after hours grocery crew scene.
"You don't even have to shower, Pat. If I worked in bakery, I'd smell like cake, too," Sean yells.
"Is Father Matt drinking tonight?" Pat says, winking at Sean.
"Dan, please don't make fun of me. It's a serious condition. You know I was bitten by a dog when I was little," I say.
"What the hell does that have to do with drinking?" he asks.
"The dog was an alcoholic," I answer.
"Sean, your friend's insane. Let me introduce you to some more crazy people," Pat says, leading us towards the kitchen. Some pounding shit is pulsating through the speakers, and it's getting hard to tell the difference between the tempo and my heartbeat. And there she is, with her ironed blue shirt. She has no right to be this beautiful, and I tell myself she's not. It's just an illusion, like a rainbow in gasoline. We give each other the stalker first glance, the one where you pretend like your eyes have better things to do, and you cling on to your peripheral vision for dear life and make sure she's spotted you. The motions all feel very standard even at their most dizzying heights.
"Matt, is that you over there? You and Sean are practically joined at the hip these days!" says Becky. Thank God she made the first move because I could've remained silent for hours.
"You look beautiful, darling. Do you know where your lovely friend Rachel is?" Sean announces, with his own agenda in mind.
"She's in the back room. They've been burning down for like an hour now."
"Well, if you'll excuse me, I think I know where I need to be," he says, brushing past me. I give him the dirtiest look I can muster, but he can care less. The one-two punch of drugs and ass has got his mind consumed.
"You do look really good tonight," and I think of adding on the words "even with the blue shirt," but I wisely edit myself. "I'm sorry we haven't talked in a while. I've got a lot of stuff going on right now." A lot of stuff? I could win an award for vagueness.
"Yeah, can we go into another room?" she says, barely waiting for me to finish my sentence. Immediately my stomach flips, and I'm getting a strange premonition that I'm about to have the conversation from hell. The "where do we stand?" dialogue is so extraordinarily played out at these parties, since everyone insists on acting like they all had sex by accident. Oops, how did we get here? It's always one person that has a minor nervous breakdown over the other. We can never just both go crazy together. Becky brings me into a room on the first floor, and we sit on the edge of the bed. Body language is everything. I've got my legs crossed and my arms folded, prepared for an attack.
"Matt, I'm a little confused right now. Is there something wrong with me?" The position I'm sitting in is slowly crushing my genitals, but it's too late to move now. It's like when you're confronted by a wild animal: no sudden movements.
"Why are you asking me this? What happened between now and last weekend?" I say, like I was born five minutes before we sat down.
"What happened? We haven't spoken to each other in a week! What is this? What are we doing here?" She starts to sniffle a little, and don't I feel like a real bastard.
"I'm sorry if I don't understand what you're asking me," I say, pathetically trying to recover from the blast of emotion I'm getting from this teary-eyed little girl.
"What is it? Is it because I'm dumb? I know you think I'm stupid. You think you're so much better than me, don't you?" She's exploding, so there's no use in trying to talk her out of what she already knows. "Is that it?" My stunned silence is admission to this, and then the case is closed. "Fuck you! Just get out of here and find some smart, nasty rich girl to screw around!" With these parting words, she runs from the room sobbing, shaking, and ashamed. I notice that this bedroom has a mirror facing out from the closed door, but I have to keep my head down.
"I felt so bad for this poor guy. It looked like he hadn't eaten in weeks. I saw him going up the block like he does every night, and he was looking through people's garbage cans," said Pat. "I wanted to leave him ten bucks. I put the money in a trash bag all the way at the bottom of my bin. So, I go and park my car across the street, facing my house. He finally makes it to my trash, and I see this expression come on his face like he just won the lottery. Problem is, I get so excited that I forget I'm supposed to be quiet, and I turn on the ignition. Now I've got the guy in my headlights, and my radio comes on blasting something or other, and this dude completely goes nuts. He must've thought I was setting a trap because he throws down the cash and just tears ass down the block. I've never seen anybody run that fast." Pat finishes his story, and leans back, shaking his head in amazement. I got too depressed to leave alone after Becky left, so I decided to see what Sean was up to. He's moving in on Becky's friend Rachel, and he'd better close the deal before tonight because, after Becky gets through tearing me a new one, they'll never talk to either of us again.
"That's really great, Pat. I mean, not when you scared the hell out of him, but that's a sweet thing to do," says Rachel, as Sean's arm snakes its way around her hip.
"I think he needs to be more careful. That guy could've been dangerous," says Sean. "What's your problem?" he says, noticing my demeanor.
"I'm feeling kind of sick," I reply, which wasn't entirely a lie.
"Here, Matt, this'll cheer you up. I was going to save this news for later, but I can't hold it in anymore. Dr. John is playing a New Orleans benefit concert next month. I've got a buddy that works for Greyhound, and he can get you two free tickets to Louisiana!" Pat lets out the last part in an outburst, obviously anticipating the effect this information will have on his audience.
"I don't believe it. We're gonna see him play in New Orleans. That's like watching Elvis at Sun records. This is incredible," I say, slapping Sean on the shoulder.
"Who is Dr. John? Is that the guy who produced Eminem?" blurts Rachel, inadvertently breaking the spell she has cast over Sean.
"Are you for real? That's Dr. Dre, and we don't need to see him. Dr. John is the funkiest piano player to ever walk this earth. He's been playing down there for so long now. I wonder if he's still got it," Sean wonders. His priorities have now shifted, and he's no longer in the room with us.
"He's into voodoo. That album Gris-Gris almost made me shit my pants. You think we can ask him to put a curse on our manager?" I ask.
"Alright, now I definitely can't just sit here stoned anymore," Sean says, stretching. "Rachel, your house is two blocks from here right? I'll walk you home."
"I guess I'll take a bus back. Call me in the morning when you want come and get your car. I'll be around," I say. We walk to the front lawn and say our goodbyes. Pat heads back inside to score something, and Sean and Rachel disappear down the street. I'm certain he won't take her home for some time.
The ringing in my ears is deafening as I sit across from an elderly woman on the bus. She's snoring, and the dim lights make her skin look toxically green. The bus starts to feel like a ship, and I can hear the skies open up over the rumble of the engine. A little kid is staring at me from under the warm blanket of his father's jacket. They're probably coming home from a party. His dad hugs him tighter when he sees me staring, and I'm fine with that. I can understand the suspicion. The kid doesn't care, though. All he has at this moment is the weight of his father's arm shielding him from anything and everything. We stop to pick up a couple. I notice a long blond hair caught in the window pane, and it makes me think of Becky. My ship gently begins to sway again and rocks its cargo to sleep.
I'm watching a fat man in an Indian headdress prance around a fire-lit stage with black girls doing Yanvalou dances and colored incense, and when I stand up tall, I can see the small crowd rise and swell with the tap of the keys. After crawling on our bellies through a month of soul-crushing tedium at Wal****, we made it to New Orleans. And we get it now. All three of us know it: we come from a land of resignation. There are chairs, but no one's sitting. Outside, there is rubble and the burnt out shells of homes; but in here, no one is sitting.
We're a few minutes into the last performance of the night, and we've reached the crescendo. At our most enlightened point, we watch Dr. John grab what looks like a raw cow's tongue from a satchel near the legs of his piano. He slaps it down to the front of the stage, and leaning onto his knees, he pulls out a knife. As he slices through the fatty middle of the severed appendage, he lets loose the final line of the song, "Walk on guided splinters!" And we are all healed.
The doctor takes a bow, and the stunned crowd begins to file out of the club. Sean doesn't move a muscle. "How can we ever go back now?" he asks me.
"First, she was late. A few days after that, she told me it was definite." We're sitting in the China Bowl, and our plates are moderately filled. Whenever people go into a buffet, they get the overwhelming urge to seize as much food as possible. Everybody's scrambling around trying to collect anything that looks vaguely appetizing, and when you have amassed more than you can carry or eat, you sit and do the best you can. I'm fighting this temptation, and what Sean is telling me helps to keep me completely empty. The last few days were strange. He hadn't shown up for work after we got back from our trip. I had just been dazed and inspired. I even started hanging around the music department at this local state school, helping out with maintenance. Anything to be around the kind of piano my doctor used.
"So you knew before we left for New Orleans?" I say, staring at a fat man wearing suspenders with sweat pants. Seems kind of unnecessary.
"I had only just found out. I thought that maybe something would change by the time I got back. I don't even know what I thought would happen." He can't look up from his plate. He's finding intense emotions in the crab legs and fried rice.
"So it was from the party then. Did you ask Rachel if she wanted to. . . ?"
"I can't ask her to do that, man. You know how religious her family is. She already told her mom. How do you tell your mom something like that so soon!?" I'm beyond empathy. We're too close for that. I've got real pains in my stomach. "I went into work yesterday and asked the boss for the night shift. I need more hours if this is happening, and I can't get them during the day." We both stop talking to watch the fat man hobble over to a table nearby. His family follows him, and they all have to drop their plates loudly because of the weight. Whatever was on their minds is not there anymore when they start to eat. The expressions on the faces of this family show no signs of anything really. Sean has become as pale as the table cloth. And here comes the vomit. I can't do anything for him but put my hand on his arm. I look up at all the paintings of Asian mountains and rivers that cover the walls. I guess they're supposed to calm you down. They serve the same function as easy listening in the supermarket. The calmer you are, the longer you will stay. I'm looking at these pictures, but I have to say that they've got nothing on the family sitting next to us. They're like sleeping babies. Not a care in the world. I won't look at Sean's jerking shoulders, and the waitress stands nervously on the sidelines with a check in her hands. He couldn't have let it go anywhere else.
"They didn't capitalize when they should have. They let them rest for too long, and a gridlock was just too impossible for their forces to overcome." It's my last day and my district manager, Charlie, is still obsessed with the Civil War. When I first started working here, he seemed like the enemy. He was the guy who handed out schedules and told you to fix your name tag. But as I'm looking at all the posters of Union troops and crowded battlefields, I know he's one of us. You can't hate someone who so clearly doesn't belong. "It was really inevitable, you see. Lee knew it, but his officers didn't. I'm gonna miss having someone to talk this over with, Matt." I haven't said anything for several minutes, but I nod in recognition. "You should try taking a class on General Longstreet. See what they say. Maybe you can even bring up some of the ideas I was telling you the other day." I nod again, and smile at how wonderfully hung up he is.
"Yeah, Charlie, I'll see what they say." Working maintenance in the music department of that state school really paid off. Some members of the string band talked the dean into letting me enroll, with the stipulation that I clean administrative buildings in exchange for tuition. "It really has been a pleasure working for you." I stand up to shake his hand, but he pulls me in for a hug.
Sean managed to stay tight with me for another few weeks, following the incident at the Chinese buffet. After he started working the night shift, sightings of him were scarce. He came in as I was leaving. We used to stop and talk sometimes, but pretty soon I got nods, and he got waves. I heard from Pat that he moved into Rachel's basement, so he could help out when the baby came. He just always looked so tired. The problem with our job is that it never reaches an end. You come in every morning and start all over again. It isn't like construction or anything. There is no aesthetic reward when you are done. There is no finished product to look up at while you wipe the dirt off your hands. The only hope comes at the end of every day. Life is permanently wished away. That's why you gossip and you step into the drama like it was armor. The more involved you are in the petty things, the less you have to concern yourself with what's really on your mind.
I've got twenty minutes left and, for once, it seems like the clock is moving too fast. I'm nervous to leave today, and I know I would have killed for this moment a year ago, but I can't shake the feeling that the automatic doors won't open for me. I hear the sound of the wheels on a bucket, and I see the top of Sean's hat leaving the janitor's closet. I guess he got in a few hours early today. The store is empty, but he looks claustrophobic. I'm leaning on the slicer and counting the seconds, but I suddenly have an urge to stage a reenactment. My head's getting dizzy, and now I'm sprinting to the freezer to grab the bloodiest slab of roast beef I can find. I race out and toss the damp meat onto the counter in front of me. "Sean!" He turns, and his cloudy eyes barely seem to recognize my voice. I pull out a butcher's knife from a nearby holder, and using every bit of muscle I have left from that end of shift reserve, I come down into the slab, splattering blood and fat and absorbed water all over the walls. I wait for a second, and dripping with the foul liquids, I look up slowly to Sean, and the tears coming down his face and the smile on his lips and the most beautiful expression I've ever seen. And I stood there staring at him from the shore.
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