Sylvester (Volume 9)

When I arrived at Harvest Time that day at one thirty I was surprised to find Boss Jorge standing in front of the entrance holding his arms open.  “Your ma was a wonderful lady,” he boomed as he grabbed my shoulders and held me at arms length.  I could tell by his expression that he was squeezing me as hard as he could, and he was very weak.

He was trying to pull me in closer, so I opened my arms and hugged him back.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he spoke with compassion.

I hugged him tight, which I assume he took to mean I was trying to stifle a sob, but actually meant that I was suppressing a giggle.  I’d heard Boss Jorge say these exact words in the exact same tone of voice at many times in the past, but now they were slower, and it was funny.  It was the type of funny you can’t admit to anyone, but he sounded like Mr. Rodgers now.

I worked hard to successfully stifle my laughter, because I didn’t want to laugh at the way Boss Jorge spoke.  Boss Jorge had a minor stroke only eighteen months previous, after which he’d been back to work in just four weeks.  I told him it was too soon to come back, but he said he would “die on his feet.”  In the time since I heard him say this, I had often thought that his vertical death was immediately imminent.

Though he’d been a whirling dervish of a man in his younger days, he was 68 years old now, and he seemed to be melting.  The skin over his eyebrows appeared loose and his jowls were so long they looked like mud flaps.  His signature black curls had been growing lighter since 1995, and now they were white, which made him appear far gentler.  Guadeloupe had even remarked that he was “handsomer” now.

Guadeloupe and I agreed that he no longer looked like a computer or a communist overlord, now he looked like a very old tree; specifically a Weeping Willow.  We’d chuckled to each other when things were slow that the pockmarks and crags that decorated his checks looked like bird’s nests.  There was a boil on the tip of his nose that had grown so large and jagged we called it Widow’s Peak.

For all the nicknames and private jokes we shared amongst each other, all those well acquainted with Boss Jorge held him in the highest esteem.  Many of his employees loved him, I’m sure, I know I did.

So Boss Jorge, placing his hand on my shoulder, ushered me into the store as smoothly as he could manage.  Harvest Time was mostly empty, which was normal for a Tuesday afternoon, and Guadeloupe was the only cashier working.  I stood at her side as she checked out her last few customers, and she gave me a doleful look, grimacing and shaking her head slowly.  This indicated that she’d heard of my mothers death, but didn’t really feel like offering any condolences out loud, which I appreciated.

Boss Jorge’s meaty yet soft hands directed me to my office in the back of the store.  “We need to talk,” he said, “this might not be the correct time, but we have business.”

This was a phrase I’d heard Jorge say many times before, and based on the inflection he used, I could usually tell what we would talk about.  If he said the word “Talk” short and sharp, it meant I was about to be reprimanded; if he emphasized “We,” it meant I would have to fire someone; and if he pronounced “Business” more loudly than any of the other words, it meant I was getting an “Atta Boy,” and maybe even a raise.  This time, however, I couldn’t tell.

“I am going back to Mexico,” Boss Jorge said, glancing at the floor underneath drooping eyelids.  “I don’t want to, but the doctors—“

As his speech cut out, he landed heavily in the armchair before my computer, emitting an audible “Oof” as he did so.  Automatically, or rather instinctively, I bent over, clutching at his shoulder as he landed with a type of thud that shook the chair.  I said “Whoa,” as if he would somehow fall through his seat to the ground.

He took his right hand and placed it over mine, so that my knuckles could feel the thin rough skin of his palms. He cackled bitterly.  “The doctors tell me I need to stay home and drink tea on a porch swing all day, and you know,” he looked up into my eyes, before sputtering into hacking coughs and covering his mouth with a handkerchief.  He looked at the ground, and his voice softened as he clearly felt defeated.  “I am retiring this year and going back home to spend time with my family, and I want to put you in charge.”

He was staring at me as he told me this news, so I smiled, acting as excited as I could.  “In charge of the store?”

“In charge of everything,” he said, glancing at the floor.  “My son don’t care.”

Jorge brought his wrist down on to the table slowly, letting his hands lay on their palms, limp.  Boss Jorge’s son, Eduardo, had been someone I’d liked the few times I’d met him.  There was once at what I think was probably a new year’s eve party we were introduced.  Eduardo had gone to a good college and was by all accounts a well-liked and productive member of society, but he did not have the passion for retail that his father did.  We talked about “The grind,” as we called it; that is, dealing with the daily ins and outs of dealing with even a small retail conglomerate, and he said it made him feel like he was dead.  This was heartbreaking for Boss Jorge.

“Your son,” I said the only thing that I could think of to say, because it was exactly the same as what he’d just said, “Don’t care?”

I could hear the air whistle out of his nose as he exhaled, and I could hear it trail off into silence.  The whistle sounded like a strong breeze zipping through abandoned railroad ties in a wasteland.  “No, my son, my son don’t care.”

“Well that can’t be all bad,” I began, automatically, because it was the kind of thing I’d thought a father would want to hear.  It was an insensitive thing to say, I realized then because Boss Jorge reacted with rage.  I’d seen his rages countless times in the past, and when he was younger it seemed like anything could make it bubble in him, but this was different.

He stood up, looking me straight in the eyes, and punched the top of his desk as hard as he could.  “He is supposed to have pride in us, what our family has created.”  He raised his fist and slammed it knuckles first, onto the surface of his desk.  The pain must have been tremendous, because when he next looked up at me his eyes were full of mist.

I didn’t know what to do.  Thank god, at that exact moment, my cell phone rang.  At times, I’d considered downloading various joke ringtones, like the opening lines of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played in belches, and at that moment I was very glad I’d never done that.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and stepped outside the office, holding one finger up to indicate I’d only be a moment.  As I did, I could hear Boss Jorge land heavily on his chair as both his palms slapped the top of his desk at the same time.

“What happened, are you okay?”  The moment I heard Sonia’s voice crack through the phone an inappropriate smile broke over my face.

I suddenly was wracked by guilt, realizing how quickly and without warning I’d left Sonia’s house, I thought about what I could say to gloss over my actions.  I searched my mind, trying to think of some explanation, before realizing the perfect response had already been dropped into my lap.  “My mom is dead.”

Sonia responded at first with what felt to me like a long lingering silence.  The longer the silence became the more comfortable I was with it.  The quiet stretched for what seemed like minutes, and I languished in it, happy for the respite.  “I’m, uh, sorry,” she said first, before realizing what may have been a faux pas and restating her assertion.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine.”  I responded, automatically.  I didn’t know if I really was fine, but it seemed like the right thing to say so I said it.  “What’d you want?”

She seemed taken aback at first,  “Uh, I’m—uh, and, um, I’m—” she sputtered and coughed while she tried to arrive at her first word.  When it finally came, her words flew easily.  “I just wanted to tell you that I really liked our time together, and if you still wanted to you could come over tonight and we could work on my material before my show at Gallery Cabaret tonight, that’s all. But I understand, you probably have other things to do, tonight.”

“No I don’t actually, and I’d love to come.”  This sentiment spilled out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about it.  When I did think about, I realized why it had.  “After I wrap up here and call some people I need to call, I’ll be at your place, and we can write some comedy.”

As soon as I finished speaking, Sonia’s thunderous laugh burst through the phone.  I’d heard it many times since I’d been getting to know her, and I wasn’t getting tired of it.  “Write some comedy, sounds like a good euphemism for sex.”

I guffawed, doubling over with laughter that shook me from the spine.  Embarrassed, I peered up at Guadeloupe and the customer she was serving, peering at me with one eyebrow raised higher than its partner.  “Yeah,” I spoke softly, embarrassed now, “I’ll see you soon.”

In a voice more tender than I’d heard from her before, Sonia said, “Looking forward to it,” and hung up.  Walking back to my office, ready to tell Boss Jorge, as quickly as I could manage, that I had to go home and deal with funeral arrangements.  I felt like I was floating.

As soon as I opened the door Boss Jorge asked me what the call was about.  “Nothing really, or nothing—“ I suddenly realized that my most pressing concern was to get out of the door, so I changed tactics.  “It’s just family stuff, so you think I could go home?”

Boss Jorge looked disappointed, though resigned to the fact I was dealing with the death of my mother.  “Oh okay, yes,” he said, watching the ground.

I felt for Boss Jorge, as it seemed like the aspirations he had for the the future were likely crumbling to dust, but I had my own hopes.  If I’d had the presence of mind to consider it, I’d have realized that he was trying to hand me the reigns of his business empire, but my mind was elsewhere.  “We will discuss it soon, but—“ it seemed cold, then, even to me, but I could not deny the strength of my own desire.  “I have to go and figure out funeral arrangements.”

“Yes, yes, we will talk,” I could hear his bones creak and his tendons stretch as he collapsed back onto the seat.  “Sorry for your loss.”

His shoulders and arms were held in a posture indicating he intended to hug me again, but I turned from him and left the office, saying “Thanks for your concern.”  I didn’t know and hadn’t considered whether I was being rude or not, as I figured that any slight I gave would be quickly forgiven.

 

I arrived at Sonia’s house roughly twenty-five minutes after I left Harvest time, having stopped at Walgreens for a small bottle of brandy.  It had already been kind of a heavy period of drinking for me, so I figured it was as good a time as any to give myself over to the Beast.  The Beast, a term I’d used at times for my mother’s alcoholism, was now an umbrella term for many different things.

The Beast was compulsion itself, and it had me.

I knew I should’ve been calling my aunts and uncles, and cousins and their kids, but the Beast told me it could wait.  I didn’t feel like I needed their tones of voice right now, angry at me for “enabling” my mother, as they’d been before and I assumed they would be again.  I could just imagine what they’d say when they find out my mother died of alcohol poisoning, which is what I assumed to be the case.  Their half-heartedly hidden smiles would make me gag every second, like they know they could’ve saved her if it wasn’t for me.

I trotted chirpily up the front steps to Sonia’s door.  I knocked on the wood with a smile, but my offer of brandy ran into a block of concrete.  “What, you think I’m a drunk?”

Her voice was flat and her finger outstretched toward the bottle I’d brought.  Her eyes told me she was not kidding, so I thought fast.  “No this is for me, you think there’s enough for you, too?”  I smiled, trying to create a funny moment.

Her expression, which had been a grim scowl, softened into spongecake.  I felt an instant wave of relief as she stepped forward and hugged me.  “I’m sorry for your loss,” she spoke softly, pressing herself into me.

I could tell from the way her eyes had been downcast that she wasn’t so open to joking as she had been the night before, so I tried to speak seriously.  I held her shoulders at arms length.  “She’d been on her way out for a long time, good a time as any, I guess,” I said, attempting to quickly indicate that I wasn’t really all that sad.

This statement may seem cold to some, I know, to say that your mother’s death didn’t really bum you out much, but I think it’s a good goal to strive for.  Ideally, after you die, those whom you loved when alive will remember you fondly for just a moment, everyday when they wake up, and then forget you.

I think it’s a good goal to strive for, not being a burden on the hearts of those you leave behind.  After I’m dead, I don’t want the work of being someone else’s baggage.

“Yeah I guess,” she said, picking up an empty glass off of her front room table.  “I didn’t really know my mom, so, I guess it was really—“

“Yeah I know, I guess I didn’t really know mine either, towards the end.”  I said, realizing how drunk I was, I thought that I might be getting away from myself.  I poured another glass of cheap brandy.  “She was so drunk all the time,” my head dropped as I whimpered faintly, “I didn’t even know her those last years.”

I dropped my head, bringing my chin to meet my chest.  I walked out of her kitchen and took my shoes off before laying down on the couch resting head face first on the couch cushion.

I realized something the moment my face hit the couch.  I was mourning my mother, who died decades ago, not the drunk who died in my house that morning.  I wept, but not for my mother, the alcoholic co-dependent, why did it have to be my responsibility to see her well?

I cried, sobbing tears like I hadn’t in years.  This sobbing lasted only seconds, as I collected myself “—but you said you didn’t really know your mom?  Why was she real distant?”

“She died when I was eight.”

I laughed.  It was an automatic reaction at first, but  when I saw her lips start to curve into a grin, we both laughed without shame.  “My father died when I was two!”

That was when, for the first time, Sonia asked me a question about my life.  “How’d he die?”

I grinned as I chirped back right away, “I don’t know!”

We screamed with joy into each others faces, just laughing.  We have reflected on this time, each remarking to the other about how odd it was.  Eventually the laughter died down and the room was filled with a pause.  “My mom killed herself.”

After Sonia revealed this piece of information, the room was silent.  “So, we both have dead parents.”

Sonia looked back at me curiously, “Yup.”

“Maybe we can write some jokes about dead parents.”

I listened as she made ticking noises with her tongue against her teeth.  Eventually she answered calmly and confidently.  “Yeah okay.”

Sylvester (Volume 9)

Sylvester (Volume 8)

All right, when did she die?  This was the first calm thing I thought to myself after I found my mother dead, because I couldn’t remember her groaning or stirring as I lifted her to the couch, so she might have already been dead.  I might have lifted my mother’s corpse over my shoulder and dumped it on her bed, or she might have been unconsciously hanging on when I’d moved her.  It didn’t make any difference to me.

It was 11:13 PM when I checked on my mother for the first time since I dumped her on her bed, and I found a dead body.  Upon discovering the death of my mother, I gasped and fell into the wall behind me, striking it with my shoulders at the same time and forcefully enough that I knocked the wind out of myself.  The sensation of it was nostalgic, calling to my mind instances from childhood when I’d felt the same thing.  I’d often slipped off the swing set in the backyard and landed painfully on my back; I remembered staring up at the sky watching the empty swing I’d been riding twist in the wind, gulping air to fill my empty chest.

I’d just lay there for what felt like fifteen minutes, waiting for my mother, who I knew had been watching me, to come to my rescue.  When she didn’t, I flipped over, erecting myself and hurrying back to Mom in a huff.  “Why didn’t you help me?”

She picked up the pitcher of tea from the table in front of her, retrieved her cup of ice cubes, and slowly began to fill it.  She tipped the pitcher as gradually as she could, and I watched the level of liquid in the glass rise gradually while she peered up at me and smiled.  When it was full she lifted the glass to her lips and took a pirate captain’s swig of it, sighing loudly after she did.  “You’re ten, you had a good run.”

This was my mother’s sense of humor, and thinking of it my eyes started to water.  I had laughed, and she’d responded by grabbing my rib cage with both hands and tickling me furiously.  I remembered pleading for her to stop, knowing that she wouldn’t right away, at least until we’d both had our fill.  I remembered looking up at her, watching as her smile became wider and madder.  Her pudgy face lit up, and her teeth glowed bright white as she cackled.

I fell against the wall staring at the dead body on my mother’s bed, and a single sob almost burst through my lips and seeped out of my eyes, but I strangled it down.  I made two solitary yelping sounds back to back, like a rim shot, and put my hand over my mouth.  I looked at the ground as my wrist hit the front of my chest and I crossed the fingers of my hands so hard that it hurt.

I grimaced as my back slid downward against the wall, and my ass landed on the floor with a painful thump.  I sat there for a period of indeterminate length, remaining still and allowing sadness to fill me like water fills a balloon.

My Mom was dead, finally, and all I wanted was to play Scrabble with her.  The guilt I felt, that I’d not made it back sooner almost bowled me over.  What if she’d been waiting by the game board for hours, praying that I’d burst through the door, and I never had?  Would that, I wondered, have given her the motivation to drink herself to death?

I started to hit myself, pounding my fist into my right thigh and left shoulder, and then turned around to face the wall.  I put my palms up to it, as if testing that the wall were really solid, and began to strike it with my forehead.  Steadily and rhythmically I met the wall with my face, forcefully enough to create a large divot in the drywall.

You idiot, you idiot, how could you?  My head started to hurt, not just from the outside, the pain spread out from the center of my head in waves, bringing me to my knees.  This too had been a childhood habit of mine, and one that mom hated with a passion.  “If you keep doing that,” she’d begun, I’m sure intending to threaten me with something.  When there wasn’t even hesitation in my masochism, she’d just scream “Stop it!” and run out of the room.

This occurred at a consistent rate for the first sixteen years of my life.  I’d do something wrong, like spill pop all over the living room carpet or fill my desk with incomplete homework assignments, and then punish myself in this way.  This continued until my Sophomore year of high school, when mom finally put a stop to it.

It was after I’d spent a weekend at my friends’ parents’ summer house in Michigan, without telling her beforehand.  When I called from Michigan to tell her where I was, she screamed at me.  When I got home I was ready to handle her anger, and sought to diffuse it by head butting the wall.  After putting my head into the wall four times, I turned around and saw her.

Tears were falling down her cheeks, “I won’t tell you to stop anymore, just know that when you do that it hurts me too.”  As I recalled this moment, I felt a pain in my head that was a lot worse than I remembered, so I stopped.  I turned to look at my mother’s cadaver, fell over her, and wept.

 

Eventually I called the police, and people in uniforms started filing in and out of my house, taking care of all the necessaries.  I told them with a twinge of pride that I’d spent the previous night at my girlfriend’s house, and had come home around four in the afternoon that day, at which point my Mom had been alive though passed out.

I told them my mother was an alcoholic, and that I had no idea how much she’d drunk that day.  One officer, a not-unattractive woman with pockmarks on her left cheek and her hair in a tight auburn bun scribbled on a clipboard as I answered her questions.  I think she was probably conciliatory, but I hardly noticed, distracted by the war raging in my own head.

I grappled with a deep sense of guilt, but of a different kind than I’d ever felt before.  This guilt was not the result of anything I’d said or done.  This guilt came from knowledge of the fact that within myself, deep down, I was joyful.

Ding dong, the witch is dead.  Which old witch?  The drunken witch!  As I considered that now I could bring my new girlfriend Sonia to my house, fuck her as loud as I wanted, and that she might even want to move in, a grin unfurled on my face.  As soon as this smile revealed itself my face instantly transformed into an expression of horror.  This isn’t fun, your mom is dead.

While I watched the sky turn powder blue, and the coroner carried my mother’s carcass away, I sat on my couch and turned on the TV.  SportCenter was on, and as I watched it I realized that I could use a drink.  I checked what had been my mother’s regular hiding places and found a half-full liter of vodka in the bucket of supplies under the sink in the bathroom, and I used it to make a drink.

I sipped my mixture of two parts Coke and one part vodka, followed by another, and still another.  I was woken at 10:30 AM by my phone vibrating in my pocket.  After a few moments of half-drunk contemplation, I reached my hand down and retrieved it.

It was Boss Jorge calling.  I looked at the name on my phone and remembered that I hadn’t been to work in two days. I poured myself another drink and immediately returned the call.  “Boss Jorge?”

“Where are you?  What are you doing?”  Boss Jorge sounded angry, but more than that he sounded worried.  “You missed two days in a row, were you attacked?”

I smiled, feeling an almost familial closeness with my boss of twenty years.  “My mom died last night, I’ll be in after lunch.”

Sylvester (Volume 8)

Sylvester (volume 7)

As I lay beside Sonia and covered her with my bare arm, for the first time in my life I had a dream in which I could fly.

I sailed above sand dunes in a desert, skimming just over their crests.  I whistled through the air at increasing speed, and had the sense that I needed to hurry, and feared that for some reason I would be late.  I didn’t know what my deadline was, but I sensed my time was almost up.

I hurried as best I could, and as my speed increased I began to feel that I would make my deadline, whatever it was.  There was a single great sand dune ahead of me, bigger than all the others, but as I approached its pinnacle, the ability to fly suddenly left me.  I plummeted down toward the sand, and at the moment I hit the ground, I started awake with a loud cough.

“You’re up?”  Sonia quested from the kitchen, where she sat at the small table eating a plate of eggs and toast.  “You slept for a while, you were tired, huh?”

I sat up and yawned, raising my hands as high as I could behind my back.  I swung my legs over the side of the bed and felt cold linoleum under my bare feet.  My eyes shot open and my spine straightened.  I trotted into the kitchen and took the seat opposite Sonia.  “I guess, what time is it?”

“Two,” Sonia said, crunching into her toast.  “Hungry?”

I said “Yeah” as I grinned, anticipating a tasty breakfast.

Sonia likewise smiled, pointing towards the stovetop at the laid-out components of a growing breakfast.  “There’s the eggs, bread, the toaster, and here’s the butter,” she indicated to a small dish at the center of the table.  “You know what to do, I’m already eating.”  She sat up in her seat with an impish grin on her lips, pointing at things with her fork.

I silently made my way to the stove top, cracked a couple eggs, and dropped their insides in a pan.  “Did you sleep?” I asked, over my shoulder.  I wanted it to seem as though what was happening was completely normal to me, and no big deal.

“Yeah,” she answered simply.  I breathed a grateful sigh of relief.  She’s playing it cool too, I thought.

I flipped my eggs with the spatula to my left and turned to the right, watching Sonia through the edge of my vision.  “Good,” I said, raising my two eggs over hard out of the pan with the spatula.  I placed my plate of eggs onto the table and joined it with a piece of toast, onto which I began to spread butter.  “So what’s up for you today?”

As I started to ask the question I could tell by the wrinkles in her nose that it was annoying to Sonia.  “I don’t know, what do you care?”  Her left eyebrow elevated slightly, indicating what could have been incredulity, but was more likely bitterness.

“I don’t know. . .” after this first phrase I let a pause hang in the air.  I thought about what I should say, and then I remembered our conversation from the night before.  “I care because I guess because I like you, whaddya want me to say?”

Sonia stepped towards the sink and began to slap her palms down on the counter to the side off it, laughing uproariously.  “Oh yeah,” she leaned over the sink and turned her head around to look in my eyes.  She smiled softly, as if grinning on her own in a private moment, and then lightened the mood with a joke. “Did we ever find a dick in the sky last night?”  As she said the word “dick” the teeth in her grin shined like the whites in her eyes and warmed my heart.

“No,” I said, returning her smile with my own as I did, “We can’t see stars in the city.”

“Right, of course,” said Sonia, taking the seat at the table opposite me.  We both ate our meals slowly, inspecting each other’s faces, staring into each other’s eyes.  “I bet if we could we would find dicks all over the place, though.”

I returned her comment with barely a pause, as if I were reciting written dialogue.  “I imagine cavemen did.”  I slowly took a bite of my toast.  “They probably saw whatever they dreamt about in the night sky.”  As I spoke I thought about the way that, in the past, before even literature, human imagination had to be ignited by perceived patterns in the stars.

“The stars were their TV, I guess,” Sonia chuckled to herself.  I couldn’t remember ever meeting anyone who chuckled as much as she did.  “I bet there’s lots of swastika’s up there too.”

I cackled furiously, and as we continued to discuss constellations, each of us burst into laughter over and over again.  We imagined seeing written messages in the stars like “WASH ME” or “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL—“ as well as comic tableaus that told stories of people falling on their faces.  Our discussion went on and on, accompanied by rising and falling waves of laughter, until I finally looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 4:03.

“It’s four already,” I said, smiling wide and flashing Sonia the most tender eyes I could.  “We’ve been talking for hours.”

Sonia, who’d just been sitting on the front room’s couch, yawned and stretched out onto her back.  “Yeah,” she said, allowing her voice to fade away as she stared at the ceiling.

“Yeah,” I parroted, thinking about all the things we could do together.  I imagined us as a private-eye team in the twenties; some cuckoo dame could come to us saying that she thinks her husband is cheating on her, but we would find something far more nefarious.  Or maybe we could be lovers and artists in 19th century France, discussing the signals god sends us through the clouds.  I could feel myself falling in love, for real, and then being in love.

I’d fallen in love in the past, or anyway I’d felt that great pain plenty, but I called it love only because of the cliche that “love hurts.”  This was the type of love I’d grown accustomed to, the unrequited variety.  This type of love is very sad, powerfully disruptive, and completely selfish.

I call this type of love selfish because when love is unrequited the loved figure ceases to be her own being, in my mind, and becomes my personal object of desire.  This both strips her of her own identity, and means that she can only become a symbol of pain in my life.  But now it seemed that I might actually get to “be” in love for a time, and I was excited to find out what that would be like.

As I sat on Sonia’s front room couch looking out the window, I daydreamed, allowing my conscious mind to flit around wherever it wanted.  “Have you heard back from your mom?”

Hearing Sonia’s question was like stepping on a bear trap, and I was instantly curled in pain.  Oh no, my inner monologue screeched, I forgot.  “No, I should probably head back home.”  I said coolly, as if everything were going splendidly and to plan, but inside I was a nasty cyclone.

You idiot, I cursed at myself silently through clenched teeth.  While trying to seem calm and in-control, I clutched at my right thigh as hard as I could, feeling the shape of the bone in my thigh.  She could be dead by now you useless, fucking loser.

“I’m in a show at Gallery Cabaret tomorrow,” Sonia chirped brightly, unaware of the emotional iron lung I was in.  “It’s a stupid kinda show, basically an open mic really, but you could come, the show’s at eight.”

“Eight o’clock, tomorrow?”  I spoke, thinking that I might not make it, because my mom might be dead.  “I dunno, might be working’ late at the store, Tuesday’s our inventory day.”

“Oh okay,” she said, chirpy as ever and showing me a smile.  Her cute, lovely eyes made me wonder why I’d lied to her.  Tuesday wasn’t our inventory day, and I didn’t understand why I’d claimed it was.  I said something nonspecific about hanging out later that day and got out of there.  I had one concern: I’d been away from my normal life for too long, and I needed to see about it.

Before I could look back on my own mind and guess why I’d become such a liar, I slipped my shoes on and hustled out the door.  I stalked onto the sidewalk in a big hurry to get home.  As I sensed a matt of flop sweat on my forehead I imagined that I probably looked disheveled, desperate and lashing out at the world with passion.

I half-grinned as I hurried along in my khaki’s, huffing and puffing in rhythm with the sound the legs of my pants made rubbing together.  ShvooBAH.  My fat little stub legs made this sound as they crushed into each other with a crazy rhythm.  It wasn’t more than maybe ten paces of this hurrying bullshit that my inner thighs felt like they would burn off.  But just as the pain seemed a bit too much, like my pants would literally catch on fire, I found the strength to go on.  I knew, as I saw Welles Park, which was about the midpoint between Sonia and I, I for the first time felt that maybe I would actually make it.

 

The pain was great and liberating.  My legs burnt and I breathed smoke.  I had collapsed onto one of the benches outside an organized middle school soccer game at Welles Park.  As I sat there panting and coughing, watching little kids run and run, my head dropped, planting my eyes on the sidewalk beneath me.  I closed my eyes, folding my hands between my knees.  I grimaced, bearing my teeth and emitting a painful groan; what was I thinking?

As had happened frequently during my life so far and was likely to continue happening for the foreseeable future, I raged at myself without understanding why I’d done what I’d done.  It was the right thing to do, I decided, to leave Sonia’s home for my own, as it may have been, but I shamed myself for doing it in such a sudden and unexplained fashion.

I considered going back, ringing her doorbell and waiting just outside for the door to open.  With the door open, I’d have been free to shower Sonia with kisses to my hearts’ content, but I realized in the middle of this thought that it would have been a terrible idea.  I calmed myself down, assured as I was  that Sonia really did like me.  I regretted leaving her as abruptly as I had, but I felt we’d really made a real connection, and that our connection could last for the foreseeable future.

I stood up from the bench and trotted home, the tension melting off my cheeks.

As I walked out of the park, my pace slowed greatly and I inspected every pile of leaves I came across, wandering over expanses of grass in lazy loops.  I retrieved my phone from my pocket and called my mom once again, expecting her to answer and place an order.  It was at that point around 4:30, and I knew that it was around this time on most days that my mother is overcome by a need to buy some liquor.

I rolled my eyes as I heard the start of the first ring, expecting my mom to pick it up after only a couple rings.  When she did not, and the answering machine picked up, I left a pointless message.  “Hey mom, how’s it going?”  I don’t know why I asked questions like this one frequently in voicemail messages, but I always have.  “Yeah anyway, so I had a great night last night and I hope you did too.  I’ll be home in just a few minutes, see you then.”

Theree was no real reason to leave such a message, when I could have just hung up.  I was suddenly gripped once more by the tremendous fear that I might discover my mother’s corpse.  As I turned onto my street, and stared down the long row of houses to the end of the block, my pace quickened again.

I thought about finding my mother dead on the floor, in front of the TV, with a line of drool trailing from the edge of her mouth.  Along with my fear that my mother could be dead when I arrived home came the sad realization that perhaps she’d be better off.  She’d been hurtling downwards into despair for as long as I cared to remember.  My biological father’s death, which occurred when I was only two years old, effected her more greatly, I think, than she ever let on.  Maybe if I found her dead, I realized, I could believe that she is once again with her love.

Of course, I don’t really believe that.  I believe after you die you will probably spend most of your time underground, and that’s about it.  If my mom died while I was out, I realized, then I wouldn’t get to tell her about Sonia, and that would mean that my mother died believing that I was lonely; and without anyone.  This fear more than anything, terrified me.  I’d been excited to tell her about Sonia the next time she was sober, but she could have died while I was out.

This possibility gripped my spine and pulled me forward, causing me to sprint down the final half-block, coming to a rest before my front steps.  As I slowed to a halt, my shoulders fell forward and I placed my hands on my knees.  Doubled over, I gasped for air as quickly as I could, believing that more air would stifle the pain in my legs.  I rarely run, because when I run my legs burn like the devil.

I moved slowly up my front steps and put my key in the lock.  I began to feel very powerful and conflicting emotions about what I might find inside.  I feared the grief that would overtake me when I saw that my mother was dead.  Though through my fear of the great sadness I would feel upon discovering my mothers’ death, I also anticipated great relief.  I thought a calming might overtake me, and it might be awesome.

This thought, that my mom’s death would be great, added a sharp layer of guilt onto my mess of emotions.  This type of guilt is very familiar to co-dependents like me, it is the guilt of not making sure your addict has enough of their preferred drug.  I didn’t need to worry, though, because when I opened the door and walked in, I saw my mother snoring, passed out on the couch.

As I’d long claimed to suspect, though actually I knew, my mother had several small bottles of vodka hidden around the house.  “Hidden” isn’t the right word.  I’d just say they were placed around my house, and while I was out my mother’ed downed a few.

She lay, passed out on the couch in the front room of my house, and I sighed theatrically, as if there was someone to complain to.  She snored loudly as I slowly approached to guide her into her bed, but before I did I noticed Scrabble was out and set up.  My mother had even put two words on the board, opposite each other; one for me and one for her.  I smiled, because this was the same shit she always pulled when we played Scrabble.

It was a joke we shared.  She’d set up a game of Scrabble for us, and she would place our first words.  Her first word would just be a random jumble she made on the spot, and my first word would always be something unbelievably good like “ZOMBIFY” or “PACKWAX.”  She would then say that these two words were completely random, and this meant that I began the game leading by one hundred and fifty points.

I never once bought it, though, and I would shake my finger at her.  I imagine I was probably really cute when I was five years old, sneering at my mother and scolding her.  “No cheating,” I would say, demanding that we draw again.  We would draw again, and she would absolutely destroy me.  I never was able to beat her, and I never will, because I don’t count it as a win unless neither player passes out before the end of the game.

My left hand rose to cover my mouth as I began to cry, softly and only a little before I was able to jam it back down my throat again.  Another wave of tremendous guilt overtook me, as I remembered leaving a message saying that I’d be home soon, and even suggesting a game of Scrabble “like old times.”  I thought this indicated that she was also excited about Scrabble, and that I’d driven her to drink by not coming back when I said I would.

I imagined her on the couch, setting up Scrabble, sitting and waiting.  Who knows how long she waited, but she waited.  I resented her to my core, for creating the circumstances that led me to feel tremendous guilt that I’d not made it home in time to play Scrabble with my mom.  She’d have been drunk anyway, I told myself, lifting my mother from the couch and guiding her into her bed.

She was very heavy, like me, and I wasn’t in great shape especially after the walk.  I regretted carrying her all this way, because I could have dragged her or just left her on the couch.  Grunting and straining, I put her over my shoulder and dumped her on her bed, collapsing next to her sideways over the mattress.  I realized then that I would love a sandwich, so I was off to make one.

Heading to the kitchen, I was excited by the possibilities.  Open-faced grilled cheese with bacon on top!

Sylvester (volume 7)

Sylvester (Volume 6)

I walked behind Sonia all the way to her house, and my eyes traced the lines of her back.  She chattered idly about this or that, as I responded drunkenly to every point she raised.  “Do you know any constellations?” she asked.

“No,” I said, because I’d barely seen the stars in my city-boy life.  “Why, do you?”

“No, I’m like you,” she paused, craning her neck as she inspected the sky.  “I’m a city girl, but I just kind of like the idea of it.”

I watched Sonia while she paused, with her hands in her lap, staring up into the sky.  “The idea of it?”

“I like the idea that the cave people were looking up at the sky,” she raised her hand above her head, pointing to a plot of imaginary dots in the sky.  “And they told each other, like, ooh, that’s a bear, that’s a deer.”

“I think people told ‘em to each other,” I paused for effect, “like a around the campfire and, I bet there were a lot of dirty ones.”

She laughed explosively, and I could feel my penis respond as it rubbed up against the inside of my underpants.  I knew she liked jokes, and the jokes I told especially, but I couldn’t believe that I really turned her on.  She slapped her own thighs as she nodded up and down like a metronome.  “Yup!” she said, patting herself lightly on the chest, “I bet there are a lot of dick constellations.”

We laughed and laughed, picking imaginary constellations out of the starless sky, pretending we saw vulgar forms.  Sonia pointed up at nothing above, “Look, there’s a constellation of a prostitute pleasing a man orally.”

“That one’s called Vicensia the Whore,” I said, keeping our game of dirty constellations going.

Sonia smiled and giggled as she continued the joke.  “Over there is Trompo, or man with anal beads.”

Her line caught me, as many of her previous lines had, just right, and I guffawed powerfully slapping myself on the knees.  “I see it!”  I pointed my finger up at the sky, tracing an imaginary figure.  “That’s where the legs come together, and then there’s a line going down the middle.”  I stood with her head next to mine, pointing up at nothing above us as our eyes followed my finger.  When our cheeks touched, I turned my head, waited for Sonia to look into my eyes, and planted another kiss on her lips.

She pushed me away, ending our kiss and holding me at arms length.  “I don’t know,” Sonia glanced at the ground.  “Don’t you have work tomorrow?”

She enfolded her left wrist in her right hand, waiting for me to answer.

Is this moving too fast for her now?  I didn’t know if I could interpret romantic signals, and I thought I might have skipped a step.  Is she worrying about whether I’m gonna spend the night?  Would she like me too?  “Do I have work tomorrow?  I don’t know.”  I trailed off, raising my knuckle to my chin in consideration.  “Whatta you think?”

It was the best thing I could think of, leaving it up to her.  Sonia clapped, and brightened with a smile that showed her teeth.  “I think you can call in sick tomorrow, that’s what I think.”

She folded her arms over her chest and mimicked a schoolmarm stalking the grounds during curfew-check.  Her pace quickened and she kept her eyes forward, anxious, I assumed, to get me back to her place and have her way with me.   All my sexual fantasies of powerful women leapt into my mind at once, from the hot teacher to the stepmom and the babysitter.  I searched the catalog of masturbatory tableaus in my mind, and selected one of my favorites: the hot nurse.

I imagined Sonia, wearing a wispy paper apron, stopping by my room, saying it was time for a sponge bath.  It was only a moment before my penis was fully erect.

I guess it had been a while since I’d had an accidental erection because when I first felt my penis stiffen I had the thought that something was wrong with my pants.  It’s an odd sensation, the feel of a boner on the inside of a pair of jeans.  At first this sensation made me reflexively nervous, but then I beamed with pride and excitement.  I could still get an incidental boner, and I was about to use this one for its intended purpose.

“Okay,” Sonia said, clapping her hands together as if to clean her hands of chalk.  “Well after we fuck, you can go, but I’ll ask you to be quiet, my tenants get pissy if you wake them up.”  I grinned

Sonia turned up the sidewalk heading to her front door, but before she reached her front step I reached my hand out and grabbed at her left shoulder.  “Listen, I. . .” I don’t know exactly what it had been my intention to say.  I was going to say that I could call in sick the next day, and that her face had awakened in me a passion that had long been dormant, but instead I just pulled her in and gave her a long kiss.  I believe my point came across.

This kiss was not nervous, as the peck I’d given her in the bar had been.  I closed my eyes and attempted to feel her heartbeat through the skin on her cheeks.  My right hand felt the coarseness of her hair as my palm rotated around the back of her head.  I remembered all the romantic stories I’d known, and thought that this was the start of our own narrative.

I held the kiss for as long as I could, forcing her to bring it to a stop, which she did.

When I gradually opened my eyelids, I could see that Sonia’s eyes were already wide open, and the expression on her face was one of bemused curiosity.  “Well, okay,” she grinned and chuckled briefly.  “Okay fine you don’t have to go after you’re done, I was just saying—“  I kissed her again, I might even have opened my mouth a little towards the end of it.  In response to this expression of passion, I felt her hands press on my shoulders and push me to an arms length away from her.  “Okay now, let’s save it till we get inside yeah?”

She seemed to respond positively to the attention I was giving her, so I kept at her as she opened the door, kissing her neck and pawing at her limbs.  She chuckled, half heartedly keeping me at a distance until she entered her home.  I followed, pursuing her and kissing her deeply.  It is no mystery what came over me, but still I was surprised by its insistent power.

We worked our way up the stairs and into bed, wasting no time getting to it.  We had sex, and it was in a word awesome.  I mean awesome not in the sense that it was simply fantastic, but in the sense that it inspired awe in me.  I marveled at every sensation, enthralled at the way I could feel myself lost.

This was the first time I’d had sex in several years, so as it began, though I was rapturous, I was also extremely nervous.  What if any of the myriad things that could go wrong went wrong?  I thought about all these terrible things that could happen, from premature ejaculation to erectile disfunction, and when none of them did happen, I lost myself in pleasure.

Sex had always appeared in my life thus far as an unpleasant memory.  I could not relive any of the times I’d had sex without also remembering the pain it had brought with it.  I couldn’t remember my first time, a fumbling piece of ecstatic excitement I’d experienced with Lee-Ha, the Korean exchange student I’d known in college, without also remembering the moment in front of her dorm just two days later when she told me she’d prefer to stay friends.

I cursed myself all the way home after that.  Raging against myself and the entire world.  But all that pain was forgotten the instant I could feel Sonia’s skin, energized with life as we surged together into an active bliss.

In the middle of it, the part of my brain that constantly chirps at me with all-consuming criticism shut off.  Immediately afterwards, I was blissful as I lay next to Sonia, closing my eyes and drifting away on wings of gratification.

 

It wasn’t until long afterwards, when we were lying next to each other, that she spoke to me again.  “You gonna call in sick?”

“Oh, yeah I should,” I groaned, coughing through the end of my sentence.  “But I haven’t missed a day in a couple years, it should be fine.”  As I said the word “fine,” an enormous grin broke over my lips, and I felt truly happy.

“Yeah me too,” Sonia said, “I don’t have any pressing appointments this morning.”  She beamed at me.

“Good,” I said, stretching my arm over her chest and letting it lay.  Something about the way Sonia said “morning,” caught me, and I sat up like lightning.  I suddenly realized that my mother might be dead.  “Oh shit, I gotta make a call.”

“What?  Why?”  Sonia asked these questions in a way that seemed aggressive rather than inquisitive.  Though I might have been offended by the brusk directness of her questions, but I wasn’t.

This was excellent, or at least I considered it such, as this meant that Sonia had forgotten I live with my mother.  I realized that this fact would allow me to construct whatever reality I wanted for myself.  I thought about what would be most endearing and least pathetic.  “I gotta walk my dog.”  It wasn’t until I said this that I realized it made no sense.

“Dogs can’t answer phones,” Sonia said, cocking her eyebrow up suspiciously.  “You’re married, aren’t you?  I won’t be mad.”  The look on her face was disappointed, and as I looked on it I recalled from my own past what it had felt like to carry such an expression.

“No, I just, um—“

“I remember, you live with your mother, I’m just asking’ why you need to make a call.”  Sonia cackled at me, and it warmed my heart.  That she remembered such a piddling detail from our prior conversation boded well, I thought, and it further indicated she didn’t mind my living situation.

She’d asked why I wanted to call my mother, and the truth was that I didn’t, but I felt like it was something I should do.  “I don’t know, I guess I was worried.”

She beamed very slightly.  “Worried about your mom?”  She looked up at me, stunning me with her eyes as a full smile plastered on her lips.  “That’s sweet, wanna go home?”

I didn’t want to go home, at least not yet.  I looked around Sonia’s bedroom thinking about where I was and how I’d gotten there.  I pulled the phone out of my pocket and held it up to my ear.  As I selected “Home” from the contacts list and pressed call, raising the phone to my ear.  I heard three monotonous, long, chiming tones before I heard the answering machine message.

“This is the Forsyte residence, leave your name and number.”  Hearing my mother’s voice, recorded in the machine’s database, made me wish that she didn’t drink as much as she did.  I had forgotten how she could sound.  “Hey mom, I spent the night at Sonia’s and I think I’ll call in sick today, so I’ll see you in the early afternoon.  Love you, maybe we can play Scrabble later like old times.”

Sonia chortled, mockingly.  “Gonna play Scrabble with your mommy later?”

“Yeah, yeah I might.”  The moment I spoke this, I realized what a laughable concept it was.  To think that my mom would be cogent enough to play a game of Scrabble, and willing to play a game of Scrabble, was a laughable presumption.  “Ever since I was a little kid, we’ve always liked Scrabble.”

Sonia lay her hand over my shoulder, “Aww, that’s sweet.”  This judgement of Sonia’s, for once, did not seem mocking.  It seemed like she actually thought it was touchingly adorable, which may have made her envious of my relationship with my mom.  This prediction that the two of us would join in a game of Scrabble was a lie, as I assumed she would likely be passed out.

I don’t know why I lied in this way.  I had nothing to gain by convincing Sonia that my relationship with my mother was healthy, but still I attempted to do just that.  I scanned her bedroom with a cursory glance, and could not find a picture of either of her parents.  “How is your relationship with your parents?”

Immediately after I had asked this question I regretted it.  Her eyebrows were knit hard above her eyes as they stared at me.  “Why?”

I stumbled, struggling to quickly decide what I would say.  “Uh—um,” Sonia seemed annoyed.  “I don’t know, curious I guess.”

“Bullshit,” she said, leaving her mouth hanging open after she did.  “That’s a weird question to ask, you gotta know.”  She sat up on the bed, swung her legs over the side, and wordlessly stepped from her bedroom into her kitchen.  I followed her with my eyes, and I could watch from my position on the bed as she opened the fridge and took out a bottle of clear liquid.  She poured a bit of the clear liquid into a glass and then coupled it with the best part of a can of RC Cola.

“Hey could you make me one too?”  She looked back through the doorway at me on the bed and flashed me a grin.  As she poured my drink, I called Harvest Time and told Guadeloupe I wouldn’t make it to work that day.  As I hung up the phone and slid it back into my pocket.  Sonia walked back into the room and handed me a glass of black liquid.

“Calling in sick?”

“Yeah,” I said, pausing as I sipped my very strong drink.  It only took a second for the drink to give me the courage I needed to dig deeper into my inquiries.  “So what’s up with you and your parents?”

“I don’t know, fuck, they’re dead.”  After she spoke, Sonia pulled deeply from her own glass, gulping as she did.  After she pulled the glass until it was empty, then lifted it from her lips and placed it on the kitchen table.  She stood leaning against the table with both her palms, then looked at me and changed the subject.  “So you wanna fuck again, or not?”

I was shocked, as I thought I’d been at least annoying her, and may have been insulting her, but before I even realized what she asked I responded: “Sure I do.”

Though perhaps not as entrancing as the first, the second time I fucked Sonia was at least as rapturous as the first.  Twice in one day?  I was amazed by my own sexual prowess, and after a time both of us drifted back to sleep.

Sylvester (Volume 6)

Sylvester (Volume 5)

There was a single staircase that came up from a tiny entranceway next to the hardware store, and to many, it seemed spooky.  It was lit by a single light bulb that had been flittering for at least twenty years.  This led to Lincoln Square Lanes.  “The Alley,” as I’d called it my entire life, had become my normal bar of preference for what were primarily sentimental reasons.

The Alley was important to me.  I’d spent my adolescence there.  This wasn’t a bowling alley where little kids had birthday parties, this was a bowling alley where unemployed people drank beer and played pinball.  It was like the “Townie” bars I’d known in college, where people went to shut up and drink.  Most afternoons after school from sixth to eighth grade, I went to The Alley and bowled.

I wasn’t drinking yet when I used to hang out at The Alley, I just went there to pass the time.  I guess I liked bowling, or anyway the soundtrack of pins tumbling down was distracting.

In grade school, though I had a few close friends, we never really did much.  I was pretty lonely most of the time.  That evening at Sonia’s open mic, things would be different.  The Alley was no longer going to be a monument of isolation.  That day, there was a chance it was going to get me laid.

As I climbed the staircase to The Alley, I wondered, excitedly, what Sonia’s open mic would be.  I’d been to open mic’s in college, maybe even participated in a few (I couldn’t be sure either way), but those were mostly comprised by stoned singer-songwriters.  This was a mic Sonia had earlier that day assured me was “Just for comedy.”

Comedy open mic’s are events that occur mainly in bars, and give aspiring stand up comedians the chance to test out and advance their material.  I wondered about what it would be like.  What kind of jokes would these open mic comics tell?  I thought about about the standup comedy that I’d loved in the past.

I’d once loved Emo Phillips, and I thought about my favorite bit of his: “I saw an old school friend yesterday, Jimmy Peterson, I hadn’t seen him since third grade, and I slapped him on the back, saying ‘why Jimmy, how the hell are you?’  Jimmy started crying and screaming, “Mommy!  Mommy!” and I realized that if that were really Jimmy Peterson, he would’ve grown up too.”  Halfway up the stairs I burst into laughter considering this bit.

I loved the absurdity of the routine, and the way it told the story of an adult striking a child with wit and lightness.  That day, since the time I’d been with Sonia, I’d been trying to think of something similar; a fractured way of seeing the world.  I thought about my own childhood, and the ways I’d thought.  This was the joke I came up with:  “I like that Beethoven guy, well, the beginning of the fifth symphony, anyway.”

The moment I thought of this joke, I knew I didn’t feel strongly about it.  Anyway as I stepped up to the bar I told myself that I wasn’t going to perform that night, even if asked, as I had work in the morning.

On the other side of the wall adjacent to a row of bowling alleys there was a small, roughly one foot high platform, and on it stood a mic stand.  Behind this “stage,” Sonia was at work setting up an amplifier.  She switched it on, stood on the platform and began to perform a mic check.  “Hello everyone, is this microphone on?  Is everything cool?”

Sonia gave the bartender a curious look as he placed a bottle of cheap beer before me.  The bartender nodded and gave a thumbs up, saying “Yeah it’s good, no louder.”

“Cool,” she said, extending the microphone past its stand before pulling it back into its regular position.  She noticed me, and lowered her head to hold it just in front of the mic.  “And we have a new guest, Sil, who I’ve only recently met and has already turned me down for sex, give him a hand everybody.”  She raised her hand towards me, holding her thumb up and fingers out, like a model on The Price is Right.

For a moment I was stunned, preparing to feel humiliated.  I hadn’t turned her down, I thought, we’d just had a missed connection.  I was going to jump up onto the stage, pull Sonia close, and explain what had happened between us.  I would explain that had been my fault, and that I was still totally into her, but several sharp cackles cut the air between us.

There were four people at the bar, all of them seemed like teenage boys.  Despite the fact that they were all wearing baseball hats and jeans, I figured they were in their mid-twenties.  These boys all sort of reminded me of myself at their age, or they made me imagine the way I might have been, if I’d had a “Crew” of “Bro’s” like they did.  I pondered it, but couldn’t picture it.

As I pulled a stool out from the bar to take a seat, the white boy nearest me seemed to yell with a booming voice, “What were you thinking, man?”  He had a goofy face, and he seemed to be opening his eyes as wide as he could.  He had loose curly bright red hair that popped out the back of the bandana he was wearing like water from a fire hydrant.

I must have looked confused, as my mouth was slightly open and my eyebrows were knit tight.  “Um. . .” I spoke, trying to think of something funny to quip, and hopefully reduce the tension of this interaction.  I pulled a stool up close to the bar, sat on it calmly, and told the truth.  “I don’t know.  I was scared, I guess?”

The young man laughed and clapped in a way that seemed to be more at me than with me.  I ignored what I might have considered a slight as I felt Sonia’s arm lay across my upper back.  She wrapped her palm around my shoulder and brought it tight against my bicep, squeezing me harder than I’d have expected.  “Sorry about that.  I just saw you, and I’d had a few and I was holding a microphone.  So, ya know?”  She shrugged adorably.

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said truthfully, as it really was fine.  Sonia hadn’t embarrassed me by blurting out into a microphone that I’d refused her offer of sex.  Just the opposite, it made me seem quite the gentleman.  “I just wanted to come up and see, uh, what’s goin’ on.”

Sonia went about showing me the list of comedians and explaining its workings with a simple summary.  “I put the list up at eight, and it’s pretty much first come first serve, but if you wanted to go up early I can slide you in.”

“The list?  Slide me in?”

Sonia chuckled putting her hand on her hip.  “Slide you in just means put your name on the list to perform tonight.”

I would’ve probably objected, saying that I couldn’t possibly go up tonight, but I was caught by Sonia’s eyes.  I figured it was probably some obvious touch of makeup, like a dusting of blush or rouge wherever, but her eyes were stunning and they caught me; I was helpless.  From the wit in her eyes I could tell that she expected me to fumble, but I held strong and acted cool.  “Yeah okay, I’m in.”

Smiling and clapping, Sonia picked up a pen and the clipboard that held the list of that night’s performers.  The numbers one and two were blank, but the numbers three through fourteen were filled with names.  I turned to Sonia, as I was not quite sure what to do, but she told me that I didn’t need to put my name on the list, because she’d get me up whenever I was ready.

“Bullshit!”  The kid with the fire hydrant hair waved his arms and stomped his feet.  “He turned you down though, Sonia, fuck him.”

“You’ve already met Cali,” Sonia said with flippant disregard, “I guess you can tell he’s a shithead.”

“Shut up, bitch,” Cali responded quickly, and they each moved on.  It seemed like they’d been joking, or at least had some sort of prior understanding.  I laughed neither nervously nor excitedly.

Sonia introduced me to the three remaining young white boys.  “And that’s Jerry, Nathan, and Bob,” she said, pointing to each in turn.  “They’re awful too, like we all are, but they’re nice at least.”

The lad in the middle, Nathan, raised his hand as he called out.  “I’m not awful, I’m awesome.”  He was the one who seemed oldest, as his face was a bit pudgy and his hair seemed to be receding.

All the comics laughed, and Sonia put her shoulder to Nathan’s and leaned against him.  “That’s right,” she said, extending her lower lip out past her chin, “Nathan’s our favorite.”

Nathan laughed, shyly nodding his head as he did so.  “That’s right I’m awesome.”  Nathan squeezed his eyes shut in a mock sob as he lowered his head.  Both Jerry and Bob patted him on the back, offering their own condolences.

Open mic comedians, in my experience, are a strange bunch.

 

“Hello and welcome to this, the second edition of: The Bowling Microphone!”  Sonia stood in the center of the small, makeshift stage that rose only two feet up from the ground.

“It’s a straight first-come first serve, you can put your name and only your name on the list.”  She raised a single finger and wiggled it side to side, telling me that she wasn’t really that serious.  “Your time is four minutes.  You get the first light at three, this is the light.”  She opened her cell phone and held it above her head, “This means wrap it up.  If I’m waving at you and flipping you off, get off the stage.”

She finished her opening spiel in a way that seemed very practiced, and as she wrapped up by announcing the night’s drink deals, she moved on to her comedy.  As it would happen, most of her hosting set was spent discussing me.  “Okay, gang, so here’s what happened,” she bugged her eyes out a little and chewed her bottom lip, “I met a boy.”

She almost giggled, putting her hands over her waist and bending her knees slightly.  I giggled a bit too.  Her impish grin melted away in an instant and she pointed at me, saying plainly, “It’s him, so. . .”  She shrugged, “I’m not, ya know, wild about it.”

I burst into laughter so hard I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt its like.  I was able to keep my composure, so this guffaw was short-lived, and Sonia continued her set.  From this opening quip, she segued into written material.

“I’ve done a lot of research, and I believe I can say, with confidence, that without a doubt, the itchiest spot of the body,” she let the joke draw out smoothly, like a master calligrapher.  “Is the taint.”  She then took her free hand and inserted it between her legs, scratching the spot where they were stitched together with her nail.  As she at least pantomimed digging her nail into her crotch (though I think she probably actually scratched), she let out a soft groan.

Huoawhoah,” she sounded satisfied, releasing rather than creating her own unique call.  “This is one of the most important things in life, the little pleasures.”  She stood and looked out over her audience, moving swiftly on to the next joke.  “When I was a kid I thought the world was speaking to me.”

I was confused by the way Sonia’s material seemed to meander around.  “Like you know the sound of a stomach growling?  I used to think it was a little voice saying “stomach.”

Sonia was able to manipulate and shrink her voice such that while it did sound a lot like the sound your gut makes when it’s empty.  “You know, ‘cause I thought it probably knew what I called it.”

After just these few opening bits, Sonia retrieved the list and read the first name off of it.

“Uh oh, this first comic, this guy’s trouble, Lyle the Cutter.”

A tall, pudgy, clumsy-footed man with what I used to call a buzz-cut ambled onto the platform and faced his audience.  “My name is Lyle and the doctors told my parents to make sure there’s nothing I can strangle myself with at our house, I guess it was because I cut myself a lot.”  Lyle spoke in a monotone, varying the distances between his words very little.

This manner of speaking was unsettling to me.  It sounded as though he might have some kind of mental disability.  This consideration left my mind as soon as he told his first joke: “No seriously, I love to draw but they took my pencil away ‘cause I stabbed myself with it.”

I cracked up.  It was hilarious, and I didn’t consider even for a second how tragically honest Lyle the Cutter may have been.  The open mic comics who’d seen Lyle many times before laughed, with several of them also cheering and hooting.  Other than that, the three or four regular bargoers chuckled nervously and glanced at each other.

From there, Lyle’s act devolved into near-robotic recitation of facts and lists.  His joke about stabbing himself with the pencil really made me laugh a lot.  As I thought about it, most of the humor of this statement seemed to come from the lack of a comma between “away” and “‘cause.”  If you pronounce the joke like that, I felt, it would be like you were reading the joke like a news bulletin, and that there was nothing odd about it.

After Sonia and Lyle kicked the show off with a very weird pair of sets, the mic was off and running.  To tell the truth, I’d admit that the majority of these comics were forgettable, but there were a few standouts.

One guy, Bob Avaro, whom I’d sort of been hanging out with at the bar with just prior to the start of the mic, seemed to do his best to bring down the energy of the room.  He held the mic in front of his chest, lowering his head to meet it.  “I usually wake up pissed cause I don’t wanna go to my work, but then I remember I lost my job yesterday, and that calls for a celebration drink.”

After Bob, both Jerry and Nathan, his two compatriots from the bar went up in direct succession.  Their acts were sort of hackneyed, blatantly obvious, and distinctly forgettable.  The same could not be said for the comic who went up soon after them, Malcolm, “cali” Kavanagh.

Cali, who I’d met earlier and had made an annoying impression on me.  His long, curly red hair, as well as his obnoxious demeanor, made me want to push the palm of my hand into his face.

His “jokes,” if they could be called that, meandered from reflecting on the fact that he was performing at a bowling alley to noticing the people in the audience that looked weird.  At one point he even said “Get a load a’ this guy, what’s with his head, right?”

As Cali performed in this way, each “joke” only earned only silence and derision from the audience, until he turned to me.  As he looked over his audience, groping for something funny to say, his eyes locked on me and he smiled wide.  He pointed at me, “And did ya hear?  This guy turned down Sonia, what the hell man, she’s a milf!”

I raised my hands, pointing my palms to the ceiling, trying to think of something to say.  Cali’s mention of Sonia and I had garnered the only laughter his comedy had received so far, so  I knew he wasn’t likely to just move on without getting my response.  I wasn’t fast enough at it, though, as before I could respond to him, Cali resumed aggressively questioning me.

“So what’s the deal man?  You gonna hit that or what?”

I just stared up at him and watched him point the microphone at me.  Having no response, I looked at Sonia, and she was jumping up and down, waving an open cell phone in the air; I pointed to her, “I think your time’s up.”

“Just when I was finally getting laughs!?”  Cali gesticulated with his hands, pretending to hurl the microphone on the floor, and then placing it gingerly on the top of the stand.  “I apologize, as always, for everything I’ve said into this microphone.”

Cali dropped his head as he placed the mic back on its receiver and lowered his head.  Looking out over the audience, which by that point was comprised almost entirely of aspiring comedians, and then sat on the stool to my right.  As he was doing this, Laura resumed her hosting duties.  “That was our main man Cali, give him a hand.”

At 11:43 PM, I was feeling tipsy, so I decided it was time for him to go home.  I considered heading out, and I remembered that I’d told her I would perform I would perform that night.

Will she hold me to it?  This thought wrapped itself around my head and would not let go.  What would she do when I told her he didn’t want to try standup?  Would she make fun of him?  These open-mic comic people seemed to be pretty quick and nasty with the insults, what would they say?  What if they pressured me to perform after all?  It could become a very embarrassing situation, and I hated those.

As the second-to-last comic was just about to come to the mic, I feebly sidled up to Sonia.  “I don’t think I’m gonna go up, actually.”

I’d spoken shyly, as though ashamed of my cowardice, and I expected her to denigrate me.  Or worse yet, she could’ve acted disappointed, hanging her head and shaking it slowly.  However, in response to my cowardice, she smiled and spoke with a warm voice.  “Oh no problem, maybe you’ll do it some other night.”

Hearing Sonia say “some other night,” excited me, as it indicated she was already planning to spend more time with me.  “Yeah maybe I will,” Sonia responded, switching off one of the microphones on her PA system.  She walked over to me, laying her wrist on my shoulder.  “You stickin’ around?  We’re almost done.”

“I got work tomorrow, sorry.”

She fired back like she’d been ready.  “At least stay to the end, you’re almost there.”

I agreed.

Sonia stepped to the mic, holding her eyes on me.  “And now, here we are, the last comic of the mic, let’s hear it people.”  The seven or eight people that were still listening clapped and hooted half enthusiastically.

It was an eighteen year old with lame jokes whose name I don’t remember, but during his entire set, Sonia and I were ensconced in the “looking” game.  This is the game that occurs between people when there is both a mutual attraction, and a public shyness shard between two people.  I would stare at her until she looked back at me, then I would avert my eyes.

We did this until Sonia noticed that she should’ve called the comic off the stage a minute ago, and she jumped on the stage, closing the show up as quickly as possible.  As she did this, she added a bit in the end that caught my ear.  “And so, thank you for coming to this, the second installment of The Bowling Microphone, now let’s all get laid!”  The significance of this quote from Back to School was not lost on me, and I smiled wide because of it.

After she slid the microphone into its place on the stand, she stepped off the platform towards me, cutting the distance between us to almost nothing.  She stood before me, our noses almost touching, for what felt like a long time.  Though it was not at all like me, and afterwards I was never able to adequately explain to myself where I gotten the courage to try such a thing, I kissed Sonia.

It was not for more than a moment and it was very sweet.  We flowed into each other, as it seemed our energies fed off of the inspiration of the other.  At least that’s what I felt, and Sonia seemed to feel the same.  We made out a little before traipsing down the staircase to the street.  When we left The Alley into the deep dark starless night, Sonia took a left when I’d have taken a right, and I followed her.

I thought about the reasons not to go with Sonia, from the fact that I’d promised my mother I’d return to the fact that Mondays are often a hectic day at Harvest Time, but none of them received precedence.  I was with a groovy chick at 12:39 on a Monday morning, and we were going to have sex.  I forgot everything else I could possibly have been thinking at the time.  I was about to have sex

Sylvester (Volume 5)

Sylvester (Volume 3)

3.

I thought a lot about the moment when Sonia told me not to apologize.  It was assertively kind, forcefully soft, and incredibly sexy.  I thought about the way her nose had flared as she said “Stop it,” and the way her cheeks had been kinda flushed like she was excited too.

There was a dusk to her face, I guess I would say.  It was exotic smokiness.  Maybe one of her parents was an Arab, or an Ashkenazi Jew, or maybe even South American.  Her eyes were slightly almond shaped and her casual bob hairstyle was thrown apart, wavy and black.  Her eyes were a hazy brown and I could not help but notice the collar of her shirt was a bit undone, displaying a more-than healthy shock of cleavage.

In my life, I’ve found few things as provocative as cleavage.  Sonia’s cleavage was what I might’ve called “hot,” like two pillowy-soft pound cakes with a matt finish  As I followed her to her house, which she’d assured me was just a few blocks away, I thought about what was happening in an excitedly detached way.

An attractive woman who appeared to be in her late thirties was leading me to her dwelling, where the two of us would “party.”   First of all, this was absolutely unprecedented, and I needed to acclimate to this new social landscape immediately.  I wondered what the word “party” had meant, and every possibility excited me.

Had she meant to imply that we would have sex?  I had had sex before, a couple of times in college and a few times since, but it had been a very long time.  It had been so long I didn’t even think about it anymore, or anyway that’s what I told myself.  Sexual desire is such an unconscious thing that I have no way of knowing whether I thought about sex all the time or hardly at all.  The psychologists say all the time, and they’re probably right.

So I wondered, if I were called upon to perform, would I rise to the challenge?  The possibility that I would not be able perform sexually scared me enough that I decided I would not have sex that night, even if it were offered.

I would refuse sex once, however, if sex was offered a second time, I would give it a shot.  Imagining Sonia offering me sex not once but twice made a slow smile tickle across my lips.  It felt possible.

“You’re not gettin’ any,” Sonia said, making me slightly disappointed, and far more comfortable.  Her eyes beamed up at me, and noticed the growing grin on my lips.  “Of course, anything’s possible.”  She smiled wide, opening her mouth as wide as it would go as she guffawed.

I looked away from her and stared straight forward, thinking that I should say something.  I didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time, or anyway long enough that I thought Sonia might feel embarrassed.  “Uh, um, uh—“ searching for words and considering the possibilities rendered me mute, like a mumbling idiot.

“Relax, there’s no pressure.”  As Sonia said these heavenly words she grinned sweetly and leaned her shoulder against mine, nestling the crook of my elbow against her palm and fingers.  “We’re just gonna hang out, and maybe you’ll meet my roommates.”

Roommates?  I figured that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.  As I considered what this woman in her late thirties would be doing living with multiple people she called her roommates, I realized that I had one of my own.  Oh shit, mom!  “As soon as we get to your place, I gotta make a call real quick, if that’s okay.”

“Yeah that’s fine,” as Sonia paused before asking her next question, I realized what it was likely to be, and instantly dreaded it.  “Who ya gonna call?”

I knew I had to think fast, so I glanced at the catalog of references in my mind for a way to deflect the question without answering it.  I didn’t want to tell her so soon that I lived with my mother.  Luckily, I saw my best option instantly.  “GhostBUSTERS!

Sonia laughed for a while in a way that appeared genuine.  I figured it probably was, either in a genuine or an ironic way, real laughter.  As her laughter began to die down, she wiped her mouth with her forearm and chortled slightly, before returning to her question.  “No, seriously, who ya gonna call?  Your wife?”

“I don’t have a wife,” I responded instantly.  I considered briefly lying to her, saying that I should call my ex-wife to ask about our son or something, anything to avoid admitting to her that I still lived with my mother.  Thinking about it, though, I realized that Sonia’s situation seemed odd enough that I wouldn’t expect her to judge.  “I live with my mother, and she might get worried about me.”

I watched Sonia nervously out of the sides of my eyes, anticipating spirited chuckling or something, but I couldn’t detect any affect at all in her expression.  She just said “Okay,” but I wasn’t quite satisfied with that, and had to clarify Sonia’s understanding of the situation.

“She lives with me, I mean, I mean I look after her, I guess.”

Sonia shot back almost immediately.  “It’s cool, there’s no judgements.”  We walked up the few steps to her front door she remarked flippantly, as if it meant nothing, “I have a ten-year-old son.”

I was taken aback by this information.  I stood behind her, stunned and still, as she unlocked her front door.  “Don’t worry,” she said glancing back at me with a devious grin, “The kids don’t usually bite, just don’t make any sudden moves.”  She cackled as she slid her key into the lock and turned it.

 

When I was walking up the stairs behind Sonia and she was looking back at me laughing, my heart started beating a little faster.  I mean it must have, because I was breathing much harder.  I focused, believing that this moment could become monumental to me in the future, either for good or ill.

This could be the moment I met her, the woman who could change my life.  As Sonia unlocked and opened her front door I thought about everything she had told me about her life.  There wasn’t really much to consider, I began to realize  She told me she had roommates, and that she had a ten year-old son.  Was her son being playfully referred to as a “roommate?”

Thinking of it, I wondered whether this decision I was making was a huge mistake.  Could I be walking into my own linoleum-sided mausoleum, acting like a new father or older-brother role model for some rugrat miscreants?  I thought that Sonia might be a harried single mother angling for domestic support, and if this were the case, It probably wouldn’t be all bad.

I could pal around with a little kid, I bet it would be fun.  And if a youngster came to look up to me, or rely on me for emotional support, it could conceivably be emotionally transformative.

But as soon as I entered Sonia’s front door, a puff of smoke floated into view above the couch opposite the TV.  On the couch were two young adults, whom I guessed were college students, and I could smell that they were smoking weed.

I detected the odor of marijuana as I followed Sonia into the house and it took me back to my college days.  I’d smoked a fair amount of what the adults used to call “dope,” but it had never really been my thing.  Seeing the smoke, she said, casually, “Oh goddamnit, guys, already?”

The one on the left giggled a bit, “Already.”  They simultaneously erupted into cackles of a kind I remembered from discussions of John Cale and The National Lampoon.

“These are my roommates,” Sonia said, walking past me into the house and opening a side door.  “Jacob and Jason, I call them the J’s.”

Jacob and Jason erupted into giggles when Sonia called them the J’s, which I suppose had been her plan, because as they giggled she tried to whisk me up to her room as fast as she could.  It wasn’t fast enough, as after us I heard her young “roommates hoot and holler, with one of them yelling “you go girl” at the top of his lungs.

Sonia was beat red, and she almost seemed as though she was having a breakdown.  I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but the effect that this set-upon, untamed world seemed to be having on her was very alluring.  I imagined her as I saw her, all wide eyes and gasping, clutching at shining moist collar, her lips open slightly pushing the air out softly but as hard as she could.

“Kids, ya know?”  She said as she closed the door and turned into her front entrance way.  Sonia’s apartment seemed full and fully-appointed.  The couch and the chairs around the dining room table seemed lived in, as though they were often moved and sat upon.

I was waiting for her to tell me who the young adults smoking weed downstairs were, but she was just concerned with entertaining.  “Take a seat, I’ll get us a couple drinks, vodka-tonics good?”

“—Oh, uh, okay, thanks.”

Sonia turned and confidently stalked into the kitchen, allowing the door to swing closed behind her.  I sat on the couch, and having seen the cable remote on the coffee table adjacent, I reached for it.

It was a familiar remote to the one I had at home, so I turned the TV on and leaned back, staring into it.  I heard the familiar opening tones of The People’s Court’s theme song burst from the television’s speakers.  This reminded me that my mother was waiting for the cereal I’d said I would get a while ago, as well as any surprise liquor she might have assumed I would get for her.

This concern was was swept aside the moment Sonia burst back into the room holding two tall glasses of clear liquid, each filled with ice and holding a lime wedge on its rim.  “Here is yours and here is mine,” she said before sipping from her glass and holding my glass out for me.  “So, I saw you in the bar last night, why didn’t you just come over, I wanted you to.”

I sipped my drink and was caught by her eyes again.  She wanted me too?  I never would have guessed that.  I reminded myself to keep steady, and not to show her how exciting all this was to me.  “Oh well, I don’t know, I guess I was tired, musta been drunk.”

“Nah,” Sonia began, chuckling as she did.  “you weren’t drunk, you just left.  Sorry I insulted you.”

That Sonia remembered the insult she’d paid me and felt some regret meant a great deal to me, but I could never let her know.  Immediately, I said “It’s all right,” bringing the matter to a close, and allowing me space to change the topic of conversation.  “So what’s with those kids downstairs?”

She hung her head and sighed in an agonized fashion.  “Just some kids from DePaul renting the downstairs.”  She said this, and without any emotive aspect to her speech, she took another long sip.  “They rented it out during school for the last two years, then they graduated, now they just live here.”

“Oh,” I said, taking a deep pull from what I was beginning to realize was a very strong gin & tonic.  “So, um, what else do you do?”

Sonia seemed vaguely offended.  “What, what kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know, one of the normal-type questions ya ask people, I guess.”  I thought that my answer seemed satisfactory, and that she would understand, but Sonia seemed to be railing against social convention itself.

“Normal questions, I’m so sick of normal questions.”

I thought that maybe she was sick of questions about herself and her life because she didn’t like the answers she would give.  I could understand, having himself been familiar with this type of dark dissatisfaction.  “Alright then, how ‘bout you ask a question.”

“When did you lose your virginity?”

“What!?”  I was surprised to the point of jolting my head back like I was dodging something.  The question seemed to come at me like a blow, but considering that Sonia seemed to be playing a different game from the one I thought myself familiar with.  I knew than that I had simply to let go, and a wide grin broke across my lips.  “Leela Heathcoat, freshman year of college.”

Sonia rocked back in her seat, rolling with laughter.  She slapped her thigh as she spoke, “Okay, now ask me a question.”

I dropped into my own mind, considering what my question would be.  For a moment I considered asking something general like “What is your favorite color?”  Then I considered briefly making a Monty Pyrhon reference, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”  In the end I came up with a question I’d been dying to know the answer to.  “Why did you bring me here?”

She smirked shyly.  “I don’t know, I’ve been noticing you around, and I saw you at Harvest Time and . . .”  She trailed off as she lowered her chin to her chest as she beamed up at me with Kilowatt eyes.  “I kind of wanted to have sex with you, I guess.”

Sylvester (Volume 3)

Sylvester (Volume 2)

I woke up the next morning with a headache, which told me that I’d drunk a lot.  Also there was an empty bottle of vodka on the kitchen table and my mom was passed out on the couch, so those were more clues.  I could only guess at the events of the previous night, but it was an educated guess.  II took what evidence I had and pieced the night together as best I could.

I figured I’d probably rolled in around 1 a.m., found my mother passed out on the couch next to a partially drunk liter of vodka on the table, and then finished the liter.

Or that’s what I allowed myself to believe had happened, because it delayed the realization that my mother probably drank the entire bottle.  If she had drunk the entire bottle she probably wouldn’t remember.  If she didn’t remember drinking the bottle she may demand that I go get her more.  This was a regular occurrence.  Sometimes I would fight her about it, refusing to get the vodka, sometimes I would fold.

These arguments, the craziness in them, made me chuckle to myself on a regular basis.  I would categorize these chuckles under the word ‘bitter.’  The worst chuckles came when she said that she had finally kicked it, meaning her alcoholism, and poured out all the vodka in a flash of self-righteous masochism.  “I poured it all out because I know that I deserve the pain of withdrawal, but now in the harsh light of day, I realize that I could sure use a drink.”

I chuckle when I think about it, and imagine I could write a funny sitcom about an adult son living with his alcoholic mother.  Maybe I could call it “Beans and the Wheeze.”  “Oh mom, you’re such a drunk bitch!” (laugh track).

If I showed her the receipt proving that I had indeed purchased vodka for her just two days previous, she would either call me a liar and a forger, or start sobbing and promise never to drink again.  Living with an alcoholic is a bizarre experience.

Years ago, I remember thinking that my mom was probably an alcoholic, but I wasn’t gonna say or do anything about it, probably because I was scared.  I told myself that she felt it was her life, and she was seventy-eight, so what business did I have telling her anything?  That was what I told myself, but I think the real reason I turned a blind eye to my mother’s alcohol abuse was sadder and more troubling than that.

Honestly, it’s sad to say, but I probably figured it was as good a way out as any for her.  I know it sounds cold, and it is cold, but she didn’t have much to live for at the time.  I mean whenever the two of us were alone together talking seriously, which happened rarely in those days thank god, she would launch into wailing and gnashing her teeth about this or that.

Sometimes I got really mad at her because she was such a bummer to me.  If she wasn’t a generator of constant trouble in my life she was certainly a beacon to it.  Trouble constantly patrolled her sphere of influence, but I couldn’t be anywhere else because she was my mother and I loved her.

Even then though in many ways our mother/son relationship had flipped over on itself, she still held a lot of authority over my emotional life.  I wanted her to be okay, all the time, and when she wasn’t it pained me.  Paradoxically, it seemed before the drinking took hold, anyway, she was likewise emotionally chained to me.  If I was sad she was sad, so I preferred to gloss over my fits of loneliness.

Sometimes I would lie to her about some new gal from Ohio I’d met at the library and had a date with that night, but then I’d just go see a movie or something.  There were even a few times when there’d not been a movie I wanted to see, so I just went home, saying that she stood me up.  My mom would hug me and say “At least you’re trying,” which was the most depressing thing for me to hear for a variety of reasons.

“HuhWHOA!” through the wall I heard my mother’s morning groan, followed by a series of thuds indicating that she was clumsily pulling herself together.  Her bedroom door flew open, making the doorknob slam into the indented section of drywall behind it.  “Bright in here, huh?”

She was still drunk, it seemed, but barely.  She opened her door with enough gusto to slam it into the adjacent wall when she was tipsy, a level of intoxication that indicated she was either on her way to or coming from a full drunk stupor.

I was laying on the couch watching a political roundtable, paying no attention, of course.  “Sure is, Mom.  Whattya want for breakfast?”

Her eyes softened, “Oh I couldn’t put ya’ out, I’ll just have a bowl a’ cereal.”

There wasn’t any cereal, and I knew there wasn’t any cereal, but I preferred for my mother to figure that out on her own.  After hearing drawers open and close through the wall separating the kitchen from the living room for what felt like long enough, I finally spoke.  “Find the cereal?”

“No, I guess we’re out,” before she spoke her next words I could see the game she was playing.  She was gonna find that we didn’t have any cereal, and she would need to make a quick trip to Dominick’s to pick up some more.

Along with cereal, the Dominick’s near our house also sold vodka, which I assumed was her true aim.  I knew that if I let her go for cereal, and even if she promised not to, she would also get vodka.  So before she even suggested it, I jumped up.  “Yeah I was gonna go anyway,” I said pulling my shoes on and heading out the door.  “Goin’ to Dominick’s, I’ll be back soon.”

Whenever I went anywhere I once felt an intense need to tell someone where I was going and when I’d be back.  I used to tell a lot of people these pieces of information all the time.  It had even become sort of an inside joke some of my close friends had with one another.

They’d get up to go to the bathroom and they’d say “Hittin’ the shitter, be back in five,” and everyone would laugh.

The thing that’s kinda weird about this, I guess, is that I only actually did this when I was a little kid.  When I was a teenager I was just doing it because it made people laugh.  It got embarrassing though, so I stopped.

After my dad died I started telling my mom where I was going and when I’d be back every time I left the house, just to remind her of something cute I used to do when I was little.  I think it helped us through a difficult time, or I like to think that, anyway.

It was a behavior pattern my mother had instilled in me starting from a very young age, though she didn’t pay much attention to my announcements anymore.  I can’t exactly remember her telling me to always keep her informed of my plans, but I imagine she began this tradition from the first words I spoke.

Things between us had devolved quite a bit since then.  Thee to five days a week she just drank and sat in silence all day.  It was definitely unsettling, and probably would have been fully disturbing if it happened less often than it did.

When it did happen, she’d fix herself a few stiff screwdrivers, drink them, and sit on the couch staring at the wall for as long as two or three hours.  When she’d stared at nothing for what I supposed was long enough, she’d lie on her side and close her eyes.  Living with my mom while she was spiraling downward wasn’t really any fun.

That’s not to say there weren’t positives to my mother’s drinking, because there were.  Sunday mornings had become considerably more pleasant for me since my mother didn’t bother so much with church anymore.  There were no more shaming glances at me as I stretched out on the couch instead of praising His name and begging forgiveness.  Forgiveness for what?  For acting just as He designed me to act?  Fuck that.

Anyway that’s the point I came to way back in 6th grade, and I’ve never looked back.  Whenever people talk about the heavenly father or the way they are imbued with celestial purpose, I roll my eyes and make the ‘jack off’ motion with my right hand.  Like get a load a’ this guy, you believe this?

I had to stay stealthy about my agnosticism all through grade school and the start of high school, just to keep the status quo stable.  Eventually I told my mother that I no longer believed, and her response was less negative than I had anticipated.  My my mother held out hope that I would come back to the church on my own.

Sunday afternoons were quiet in my neighborhood, most people are in church.  Outside it was pretty sunny, pleasant and empty.  It was the type of day I might have enjoyed had I been in a better mood, but I wasn’t.  All noises were annoying and light pulsed in from every angle.  I just wanted to go to the store to get cereal, probably a little candy, and maybe a little vodka.

I was gonna get Raisin Bran Crunch but I got distracted by all the options, so I just stood and stared.  As I stood still in the grocery store, I heard a familiar, unexpectedly timid voice.  “Um, hi, I don’t know if you remember me but. . .” her voice shrunk and disappeared as she approached me.  It was Sonia, from the night before, and she held her hand out fearfully as if warding off an aggressive dog.

I wanted her to go away.  “Listen I’m sorry, but—“

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, really, I—“ she seemed to be considering what to say next, silently mouthing some words and rolling her eyes to the back of her head.  “—I was just such a bitch, and I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve that.”

Now that she seemed to have pulled herself together, or maybe I was just seeing her through sober eyes, she was cute.  She had thick, soft, curly black hair.  Her eyes were shiny and soft, and through her smile I could see all the sweetness that had ever existed or would ever exist.

Oh shit, I thought silently to myself, here we go.  I had a crush on Sonia.  “It’s no problem, I don’t even remember anyway.”

This was a lie of course, as I did remember and had been thinking about the insult she’d paid me the previous evening, but she apologized, so why should I tell her that I’d been insulted?  She hadn’t requested that information and I didn’t feel like providing it.

Sonia rocked back on her heels slightly as she kept her hands in her pockets and looked at the ground.  “O—okay.  I’ll see you around, buy you a drink.”

I raised my hand just above eye level as I smiled and nodded slightly.  I then hurried away in a way that I tried to make not look like hurrying, over to the candy aisle.  As I looked over the candy deliberately not looking behind me, I was very curious about what Sonia was doing back there.

Sonia had probably gone on to whatever she had to do next in her day.  I always reminded myself that other people’s lives do not revolve around me, and everyone’s got their own stuff to deal with.  I turned around just to reassure myself that she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t.

All right, I told myself, that’s fine.  I didn’t even care, and it just would have made me scared anyway, if she’d been back there waiting for me.  I picked up a little bottle of vodka, just in case my mom got really crazy that night, I’d have something, at least, to soothe her.

I did a complex set of moral gymnastics for me to justify buying my mother vodka on Sunday morning.  In the end I landed on a simple reason to buy the alcohol: it is necessary.

It was necessary for me to get vodka because if I didn’t there was a chance I wouldn’t have any when my mother wanted some, and that would spell trouble.

So I got the liquor, and I was feeling pretty guilty about that as I stomped away from Dominick’s in a huff.  When I was about to get to the corner where I’d make my turn for home, next to the turquoise Abraham Lincoln statue, I heard Sonia’s voice call after me.  “Havin’ a party?”

I startled so sharply I almost fell down, and raised my arms up as if to defend myself.  “W-what?”

“Are you having a party?”  She advanced on me, “I mean vodka, candy, cereal, kinda weird.”

I was stunned for a long moment.  It took me a while to turn around because I wasn’t sure how I should react.  I was supposed to get back to the house soon with the cereal, and mom would probably demand liquor once I got there.  On the other hand, Sonia was intriguing.

Sonia waited near the exit of the Dominick’s, having come out of the store just after I did.  “Oh-oh I don’t mean to insult you.”  I stopped and turned around to see Sonia looking very embarrassed and holding her hand in front of her mouth.  “Sorry I just overheard the cashier tell you your order.  Maybe I was following you a little too close in there, and, I don’t know, I’m an asshole I guess, sorry, ignore me.”

When she spoke her last two words I wondered if she realized how ridiculous they were.  I couldn’t ignore her anyway, if I tried.  “No no, I just—you surprised me is all.”

“Didn’t mean to,” she said, letting her hands drop toward her sides.   “I just wanted to apologize, for the way I acted the other night, It was just—“

“—no I don’t, there’s no need.  Sorry, I—”  I raised my hands up, palms forward, and shook them left to right, warding away Sonia’s embarrassment.

She coughed with purpose, just to shut me up.  “Don’t apologize, stop it.”  As she spoke these short, crisp words, her aspect seemed to soften.  Her left hand slowly wrapped its fingers around my right elbow and held them there, not grasping my arm but hovering near it, touching it only lightly.  “I’m trying to say that I liked you, and I know that I was weird about it, but I saw you bought some vodka, do you wanna party?”

I was terrified, horrified, and more excited than I’d been in years.

Sylvester (Volume 2)

Sylvester Volume 2

Chapter 1

I woke up in my heaven-feel of a bed, feeling like it was heaven.   But then inevitably I gotta pee, and that’s when I pry myself into the harsh morning air.  Harsh as the sky is blue; harsh as water is wet.  I love sleeping so much that for me all morning air is inhospitable.

Anyway I’m not a morning person, but there I am up at the crack of dawn, daily, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Even on my days off, the instant sunlight hits my eyelids I’m up.  As soon as I’m up, the TV goes on

I love TV, and whenever anyone says there’s nothing on or that TV sucks now anyway, I just can’t relate.  In recent years the internet and Netflix have made it so that a lot of people just don’t have a TV anymore, but the TV has always been my light in the storm.  I don’t wanna say it’s always been my best friend because that’s weird and it hasn’t, but whenever the problems keep piling up faster than I know how to handle them, television’s there.  I guess that probably sounds weird too, but I don’t care.

With the TV muted I stick to watching Top Plays on SportCenter or seeing what they’re talking about on CNN, whatever I can stare at and lose myself for a couple of hours before I go to work.  On the morning in question SportCenter was just talking about the NBA finals which were going on at the time and CNN was showing President Obama talking into a microphone about the “significant progress” made against ISIS.  I rolled my eyes and went hunting for something more interesting to watch.

How It’s Made was on, showing an umbrella being fashioned by hand, so I stopped my flipping to watch it happen.  It turned out that making an umbrella by hand, one uses a sewing machine an awful lot, and I began to wonder if sewing machine use and maintenance would be a good skill to add to my set.  I thought to myself about everything I could do; I could repair ripped clothes, stitch disparate items together like parachutes and floatation devices, the possibilities were literally endless.  I often have thoughts like these, none of which have ever come to anything, but I don’t really expect them to.  I just like considering options.

Anyway eventually my eyes wandered onto a clock as it said 8:47 AM, so I had to leave for Harvest Time, my place of employment.  As much as I enjoy relaxing in the morning, when I finally rouse myself it’s also it’s own kind of joy.  I went with a smile to open the grocery store.

When I got there a few people are normally already there getting things ready, and everyday roughly a block from the entrance I find Guadeloupe chain smoking.  I like Guadeloupe, or anyway I like to maintain a cordial relationship with my senior register attendant, so I normally open with a joke.

“Shit’ll kill ya, ya know, I saw it on the news.”  She didn’t laugh, as she’d heard exactly the same quip from me countless times before, and she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

As I approached her, Guadeloupe flicked her cigarette onto the ground and stamped it with the heel of her boot.  “Fuck you Sil,” she said with a disdain in her voice that I preferred to assume was meant mockingly.  “We’re still waiting on the first truck, I called ‘em and they don’t know what’s goin’ on.”

My brow was furrowed, as this wasn’t the first time our produce shipment had been delayed, and it would mean that they would probably need my help setting it out as soon as it got there.  “Shit, we’re good for the morning though right?”

“Yeah, but not if people want fresh fruit.”

Just as Guadeloupe answered my question I saw the produce truck turn off Western on to Lawrence a couple blocks from the store.  I motioned toward it with my left hand saying “there it is, we just gotta tell ‘em again not to take Western.”

She took out another cigarette, lit it and began to puff away.  “They won’t listen.  They never listen.”  As she discarded her cigarette and stomped it into the ground, I could almost see the hate pour out of her nose as she exhaled, Guadeloupe hated truck drivers.  As she turned around and headed to the store’s back entrance, she spit on the ground.

“Just go to the loading bay, I’ll open up the store.”  I went to turn on the lights and unlock the door rather than load the produce because, in the off chance that it was her husband driving the produce truck, I didn’t want to bear witness to the verbal and physical beating that was sure to take place.

She hated truck drivers primarily, I figured, because she was married to one, and she claimed to have a full understanding of just how lazy they were.  As she was my oldest and most trusted employee, the forty-five year-old housewife-turned general manager Guadeloupe Izquierda and I had something of a friendship, which meant that I was her main sounding board for complaints about her husband Saul (pronounced Sa-ool).  She said that truck drivers never really kept to a schedule because they didn’t care to, and since most people can’t drive a big rig truck, “They got us by the balls.”

When I was first getting to know Guadeloupe 15 years earlier, I’d found it ironic that she harbored a resentment towards the trucking industry, as she was married to a trucker, but the more I got to know her the more it made sense.  Saul was never home, she said, always claiming to be stuck running long hauls at all hours of the day and night.  Her tangled, greasy hair fell over her face and stuck to her back, led by the mean scowl on her lips and the dark tension in her eyes.

As I watched the produce truck near and unlocked the front entrance of Harvest Time Grocery & Produce, I silently prayed to myself that Saul wasn’t driving it.  If Guadeloupe saw her husband at the wheel of the truck that was then a full half hour late, she would certainly end up beating him about the head and back with her meaty hands.  I’ve often felt compassion for Saul as I’ve watched Guadeloupe stock 25 pound bags of potatoes like they were nothing, and knowing that she was a terrifying and aggressive presence.  The few times I’ve actually seen and communed with Saul, the stick-thin six foot spectacled victim of his wife’s frequent and unexpected rages, he’s seemed like a fearful puppy.

 

As the truck neared Harvest Time thirty minutes after its expected arrival time, I turned the lights on and started the low rumble of Spanish-Language elevator music that was the store’s regular soundtrack.  Harvest Time was not an independent operation, but rather the largest part of a network of laundromat’s, corner stores, and bodegas owned by Jorge Garcia, wealthy Mexican immigrant and owner of what I considered the world’s worst haircut.

Garcia’s portrait, which held a wall space of prominence in each of his 8 businesses located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, made me at least chuckle silently to myself every time I saw it.  His hair was black and so greasy-smooth on top that it appeared like a helmet, which combined with the thick curls at either side of his head to frame his face perfectly.  It was like he was a robot with wires coming out of the screen that displayed his face.

I’d had a monthly meeting with boss Jorge (as he preferred to be called), and in the countless number of these meetings we’d had he always seemed like a paragon of management expertise.  I can only say that, I guess, because he owns so many businesses and they all seem to make money.

Anyway as I booted up the computer in my office, a cubicle-sized room in the back of the store I don’t really spend that much time working in, it occurred to me that I might need to intervene on Saul’s behalf once he got to the store, as a bloodbath would be bad for business.  Guadeloupe had anger problems, and if she took the opportunity to beat her husband in full view of any curious would-be customers, it might make things awkward, which could potentially lose us business.

I went out behind the store to rescue Guadeloupe’s husband from her clutches if need be, but she was just yelling at some new young truck driver I’d never seen before.  I sighed, relieved as I was not just on behalf of Saul, but also on my own behalf, as it was an unpleasant thing to see a grown man dressed down and humiliated.  I guess that might seem kind of selfish, at least to me, but I just don’t wanna be there for the uncomfortable sound of another man’s ego being pounded into dust.

Anyway me and Guadeloupe were the only people at the store upon opening at 9:07, ready to greet the flood of customer that poured through the front door.  I say flood of customer and not customers because just like normal, my first customer is a single man, and I call him a flood because he’s roughly six feet tall weighing three hundred and fifty pounds.  Those measurements are just my best guess, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he, Douglas Krandall, actually weighs more than four hundred pounds.  Every time I see him I remember the beginning Raiders of the Lost Arc and imagine him chasing me out of a cave, but he’s a really nice guy, and whip smart too.

“Hey Doug, the produce was a little late today, so it’ll be a few minutes before Guadeloupe sets it all out.”

Mr. Krandall nodded slightly looking me in the eyes and apprehended a shopping cart from the row of them adjacent to the store’s entrance.  Immediately after I told him that the produce was late, I wondered why I’d done so, as I knew well that the greens would not be his first stop.  His first stop that day, as it was roughly every other day, was the cereal aisle.  In the cereal aisle he normally retrieved at least four boxes of sugary cereal.

Though exactly which boxes he attained differed from day to day, they always included at least two, and as many as nine of the following cereals: Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios, Reece’s Puffs, Cocoa Puffs, Sugar Smacks, Raisin Bran Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Life Cereal, and Froot Loops.  Whenever he went through checkout with his collection, I found myself fantasizing about what he would have for breakfast that day.  Would he eat a normal-sized bowl of just one cereal?  No, I was sure he’d have a heaping bowl of a combination of at least two of them, but which ones and how much of each?  The most obvious combinations seemed to be both types of Cheerios and both Types of Puffs, but what were his final choices?

I didn’t dare ask, of course, as it seemed likely this man had likely fought a losing battle with his weight for his entire life, and he didn’t need me reminding him that he was essentially buying a lot of boxes of candy.  I’ve long figured that the fat guy who buys too much cereal probably has a sad life, and that he seems to be filling his mornings with a variety of cereal to quell a sickening loneliness.  Or, come to think of it, he could have children, and the cereal could be for his large family that loves him very much.

I don’t think he has a family though.  I think that these boxes of cereal are not purchased for anything but his own addiction, as he seems to have a real problem with self control.  I’m overweight, and I’m very sensitive to the stigma this brings, so I watch what I eat, or try to.  Mr. Krandall seems to have given up.  He must purchase boxes of powdered donuts, set them on their kitchen table and stare at them, overcome by the inevitability of it.  He must look at those donuts thinking to himself that he cannot resist them, and any effort spent combatting the desire to taste the donuts will surely be wasted.

I suppose we all have our addictions, though.  After I’d made sure all the produce was laid out and Guadeloupe had given the trucker whatever tongue lashing he’d had coming, she fumed to her spot behind the cash register nearest the door.

As I’d known for a long time, Guadeloupe had a big problem with rage, and it often expressed itself in her interactions with customers.  Saturday, June 13, 2015, was a day when Guadeloupe’s rage problem showed itself.

Around 4:15, which is normally the time when I have the largest solid force of customers coming through the door, Guadaloupe’s rage made itself known.  I like to say that when a large enough group of customers is attempting to enter the store at the same time, they’re a lot like water, in that they will press the door with the entirety of their being, and nothing can possibly get through them.  And then, if in front of such a crush of people, there is a single customer having an argument with a cashier, all hell’s liable to break loose.

This day, a customer was unsatisfied with the quality of our produce and went to the cashiers to lodge a complaint, and it was his bad luck that his cashier was Guadeloupe.  “Excuse me!?” she asked, with fire in her eyes and acid on her breath.  “You don’t want the fruit than don’t buy it, that’s it!”

She slammed her palms on the flat surface before the cash register, creating a sound not unlike a gunshot.  As the customer wavered backwards Guadeloupe pushed her face towards him, and his brusque manner withered into a warbling apology.  “Sorry it’s, just, I have a—“

“I know!  Go!”  Guadeloupe yelped as she gestured wildly and aggressively.  At that point the customer turned tail and scampered back into the produce section, concluding the most memorable event of the day.  I should say now that as you can see that though I enjoy my job very much, and it pays well enough, it is mostly all the time unbelievably boring.

When I was running a cash register, that was boring, but not as emotionally draining.  Being the manager of a grocery store is just like being a cashier, but oftentimes you have to fire people.  I mean it’s like being a cashier in that one day kind of melds into the next.  It’s incredibly boring because you’re doing the same kinds of things every day, and you don’t even get to deal with customers.  Don’t get me wrong, dealing with customers isn’t always peachy, but I prefer it to solitary confinement.

Customers at least have some variety to them, as a group.  They can at least give your days some color, like “remember when that lady with the crazy orange afro started screaming?”  “Yeah, I remember that, there was sugar everywhere.”  I actually used to have stories like that, but now I just deal with suppliers and logistics all day.  Since I became manager I just deal with a bunch a’ starched white shirts passing each other folders in a warehouse.  I don’t wanna say that the people I deal with on a daily basis can kinda seem to coalesce into a stream of reasoned decision making and managed expectations, and sometimes it kinda gets to me.

So as the clock ticked to 9, closing time, I started to pack the store up for the night.  I like working opening-to-close, for mostly reasons that aren’t “I can get more work done.”  For one, I’m the manager, I have an office, and it allows me to get a1-4 hour nap in the middle of most days.  I pretty much set my own schedule, which gets more filled than I expect most days, but on some days, I’d say at least once a week, I get to pretty much watch everything take care of itself.

At 9:13, another of my coworkers Halley Oldman and I locked up the store, said our goodbyes, and said we’d see each other again after the weekend.  At the end of every work week, I stand out by the backdoor for a while looking up at the night sky.  I don’t know why, I can’t see any stars ‘cause it’s the city and I can’t say for sure what really I’ve been thinking about any of the times I’ve performed this ritual, but I’m out there every Saturday it’s not raining.

 

I’m a casual drinker, I might even call myself a “social drinker,” but the society of fellow drinkers is not really what keeps me coming back to the bar.  I enjoy having my composure slightly impaired in the evening from time to time, and that’s the long and short of it.  For instance, Saturday night, at the bowling alley above the hardware store, there’s always a party going on.  By “party,” I mean mostly regulars sitting around drinking, and sometimes someone plays Prince on the Jukebox (it’s often me).  But they know me by name, so it’s a little like Cheers I guess.

At the corner of Lincoln and Argyle, roughly a block away from Harvest Time, is Lincoln Square Lanes, my bar of preference.  I like it because it’s a bowling alley, and I enjoy the sound of pins tumbling down.  After work I moseyed over to the alley (as I refer to it) and parked myself at the usual station.  I signaled by raising my hand to eye level for an instant.  Raymond, the bartender who’s last name I don’t know, pulled a cold can of Coors and planted it in front of me.

I looked around the bar, trying to see if there was some cleavage to lear at, and saw no faces I recognized.  The moss colored carpet had some new stains by the door indicating that someone had likely vomited while leaving or arriving at the establishment, and staff had lacked what it took to clean it up.  I looked at the stain and thought to myself: “charming.”  I’m still a sarcastic little asshole just like I used to be, only now I do it silently.

Just then, or several minutes later, Simon Despereau, one of my good buddies, busted through the door caterwauling like usual.  “Sil!  I knew I could count on you.”

“Count on me?”

“No one else is here tonight, man.”  Simon slapped my back between the shoulder blades, hard enough to make a sound.  “Look around man, no one’s here, where’s Heath?  Where’s Marge?  Where’s Jojo?  I feel like I’m losing friends every day.”

I suspected from Simon’s aspect while speaking that he was kidding, but I also sensed an edge of regret.  I know that Heath was one of the regular drinkers at Lincoln Square Lanes once upon a time, and I may have at some point known a Marge to come around on occasion, but Jojo was a name Simon definitely made up.  Being the funny guy I am, I felt like continuing the game.  “Yeah man, and where’s Lavondrias?  Crystal Cypher?  Alexander Hamilton?”

Simon collapsed into guffaws while remaining upright as he leaned against the bar.  Simon was a tall, thin man with a handsome face and darting eyes, a little like Peter Lorre in Casablanca.  He might’ve been a ladies man if he’d ever learnt how to speak to them, but he never bothered.  “Crystal Cypher murdered his family and ate them, then shot himself in the head.”

This man was a friend of mine, so though I felt Edgar might have just gone a smidgeon too far, I laughed as I shook my head and clapped Simon on the shoulder.  “I miss you during the week, want a beer?”  Though I did eventually buy Simon a drink, laughing and carrying on like I was having a wonderful time.  I guess I was having a nice time, come to think of it, as I enjoy moderate drinking and cracking jokes with people.

“I miss you too man, bring it in,” Simon declared as he pulled me in for an aggressive hug.  These type of gruff hugs were not uncommon for me and Simon.  I wondered sometimes how much this contact meant to each of us.  I don’t know how much it meant to Simon, as he seemed quite drunk, but for me they comprised the entirety of my physical human contact for the week.  I know there are people who just don’t like to touch other people at all, be it germaphobia or whatever, but I think I need some sort of physical contact.

Though I would never admit it out loud, and I would caution you, dear reader, from attributing any homosexual meaning to it, I felt a rush from Simon’s hug.  As he grabbed me and pulled me close, I clutched Simon in return, shaking slowly from side to side.  “So what’s up tonight man?  Seen any movies lately?”

This was a standard question shared between us, to be met with a standard response.  “Yeah man, tons of ‘em, they all sucked though.”

“Too bad man, maybe next week.”  Both I and Simon are movie lovers and each quite hard to please, so one of our main traditions is declaring our dissatisfaction with the current cinematic landscape.  I suppose I would prefer, given the choice, to have a friend with whom I could speak seriously, but to get one I’d have to open myself up, and I can’t do that first.  I guess this is a problem with being a funny guy, which I am, it sometimes seems like that’s all people want from me.  Maybe humor is all people want from me, or maybe it’s just all I give them.  This, like so many concepts in my life, presents itself as a type of chicken/egg scenario.

That’s not to say that my relationship with Simon is completely superficial and based on taste in films, but as soon as we’re drinking it starts to seem that way.  And anyway Saturdays at the bar all start to run together after a while, until I can’t tell one from the other.  There was one exception, the first time I met Sonia.

It was quite late, say around 12:30, right around the time I normally leave for home, and she came through the door looking thirsty and inquisitive.  She was short, five foot even, and displayed her pot belly proudly in a tight pink dress.  I thought it was fearless and sexy.  She wasn’t blind, and mirrors are plentiful, but she just knew that a belly suited her well.  Sonia’s comfort with herself was so sexy, in fact, that I was drawn into actually introducing myself to her.

“Hi, my name’s Sil, what’s yours?”

“Sonia, but I’m gay.”

Saying just these four words and than turning her back to me, Sonia seemed to me a fine example of pitiless directness.  I laughed aloud, and treated the dialog as if it were a game.  “That’s cool, I’m gay too, that’s my man by the pool table.”

I signaled over to Simon, hunched over the pool table lining up a shot.  Sonia laughed aloud, looking Simon up and down.  She responded, waving her hand as if she was slowly shooing my words away.  “Whatever man, I’ll see ya later.”

From there, Sonia stood, walked over to Simon, and draped her arm over his shoulders.  Simon, though initially startled, returned the favor by winding his own elbow around Sonia’s neck.  Having been suitably humiliated, I went home, concluding another night at Lincoln Square Lanes.  I don’t remember if I cried on the way home, but since I was a little drunk and very lonely, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that I had.

https://andrewhalteromniblog.com/2016/05/09/sylvester-volume-1/

Sylvester Volume 2

Strangers

Chapter 1

Embarrassing Awkwardness

“The fact is, you’re not- not, not  a part of my life anymore.  I haven’t talked to you in four months, I haven’t seen you in eight months, you’re not in my life anymore.  What can I tell you I-” Vanessa Tomison gripped the loose skin above of her nose with her left thumb and forefinger.  The center of her forehead rested momentarily on her left index finger’s first knuckle, and she sighed.  She held a cell phone against her right ear  “Okay,” she said softly and resigned.  She seemed to quiver lowering the phone to her lap.  Her fingers felt the sweat on her forehead and she imagined it was a consequence of the stress.

Vanessa Tomison looked put upon, with her her dirt-colored hair flung apart in loopy curls, and as though she hadn’t had a shower in a while.  No one noticed because she was at an airport, and distraught looking people speaking angrily into cell phones are not uncommon in the airport.  Talking to a cell phone in the waiting area of Gate 84b in O’Hare airport, Chicago, she folded into the bustling mass.

She started to scratch, tracing her nails along the top of her thigh in slow straight lines.  This was a habit she’d retained from a youth spent being a nervous wreck, learning to never ever disappoint authority figures.  Her parents, though she still thinks of them and can in her weaker moments be said to “love” them, spent a majority of her childhood as figures of terror in Vanessa’s life.

Her long-time husband had known this, and used it to his advantage whenever he could, which was a primary reason they’d broken up.  As much as she knew he was an idiot, his words still had her father’s foolish authority.  She felt her phone vibrate in the bottom of her purse and rolled her eyes.  She knew who it was, and she wasn’t going to answer.

Vanessa knew what would happen if she did answer, and as she considered it, she began to mouth her half of a dialog to herself.  This dialog was the tatters of her broken marriage, a placating monolog that ran on a loop.  “Babe, I know, we were together for a long time, but it’s been three years babe, ya know, uh, I mean-”  She gestured desperately to her ex-husband, imagining him standing in front of her, always interrupting.  As the palms of her hands faced the ceiling, her mouth opened and she sat back, resting her head against the soft-yet-uncomfortable airport seat.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, on a Tuesday in September, and the view out of the window overlooking the tarmac was gray and dark with shade.  Vanessa wore a light green waterproof windbreaker and a new, expensive pair of jeans.  She dug her hands into the pockets of her jacket and fell against the backrest of the seat.  With her eyes closed, she imagined digging a burrow, cloistering herself from the wind and the rain.  She fantasized about being alone and warm and quiet.

But then, with her head resting against the top of the seat and her eyes closed, she started wondering how loud she’d been, talking to herself, and whether anyone had noticed her.  Her head raised slowly, and she expected all eyes to be on her, the bag lady who pleads with an invisible tormentor.  It seemed that no one was paying attention to her, so she fell against the seat again.  Her eyes drooped closed.

“Uh, miss,” she heard a light, frail, elderly female voice to her right, but several seats away.  “A-are you okay?”

“Yes yes, I’m fine,” she said, attempting to ward the old woman’s words off by waving her left hand at them.  “I’m just, going through, ya know, divorce.”

“Oh. . . sorry.”  Vanessa had long ago learnt to be flippant about her divorce, and that any comments she made about her ex should be cheeky, not vicious, to make strangers more comfortable.

“No don’t be sorry, when we got married we were young and I still love him, but, we drifted apart.  We can still joke around and we still take part in each other’s lives to some extent, and if he were giving a speech at the elk’s lodge or something, I–”  The old lady had stopped listening,  Vanessa was suddenly gripped with horror, and hurried away not looking back.  She prayed to god that no one would recognize her, after such an embarrassment.

At a point, years ago, Vanessa Tomison had been a nationally ranked fixture on the tennis circuit.  In her career she’d made five grand slam finals; the Australian Open twice and the French Open three times, her only win coming in her final French Open.  She was widely heralded for her net play.  Never the fastest or the strongest, she relied on an almost preternatural gift for ball placement.  They called her the monk, always guiding the ball to the spot her opponent just left.

In the years since her retirement, though the rare and courageous tennis fan would jump up and down screaming at the sight of her, she’d been able to meld into the blob of most crowds.  But this, she realized, was a dangerous situation.  She knew there were probably some people near her who were already now anticipating the excitement of telling their friends they saw Vanessa Tomison talking to herself in the airport.  She imagined what they were at that moment probably whispering to each other:  “Do you see that crazy lady talking to herself?”  “Holy shit that’s Vanessa Tomison!”  “I used to jack off to a poster of her.”  “Now she’s just some crazy lady talking to herself.”  “Yeah I’m gonna take a picture.”

She hurried to the nearest corner she could find and turned it, finding herself in a dimly lit franchise steakhouse.  The place was covered in shiny black linoleum and there was a jukebox in the corner, so she determined it was probably a good place to get a drink.  The hostess offered her a menu and proposed finding a seat, but Vanessa just asked about the bar.

The bartender came over to Vanessa and she ordered a Bloody Mary.  She sat back and cooled herself off, watching two political pundits jabber at each other on a TV.  She couldn’t stand political pundits, blah blah blah, blah blah blah, but it passed the time.  She sat at the bar and spaced out for what seemed like ages, then took out her phone to see the time.  It was 4:34, meaning she’d only been at the bar for seven minutes, and she ordered a second Bloody Mary.

“Havin’ a rough time?”  A small, chirpy young woman took the seat next to her.

Annoyed and embarrassed, Vanessa snapped back, “No I’m fine, thank you.”

The woman, a small, mousy brunette with expensive-looking hair held her hand out.  “Meant no offense, I just saw you having a conversation on the seat over there,” she motioned toward the seat where Vanessa had been talking to herself.  “And I just want to tell you, I know what you’re going through.”

Vanessa’a face shone fully red as it radiated heat and sizzled, she felt a defensive humiliation.  “Oh I’m- I’m sorry, you weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I didn’t really hear you, I just recognize the expression that’s all.”

“What?”

“Actually I did hear you, most of us did, I think you were definitely speaking louder than you thought, most of us heard you.”

Vanessa’s hands dropped into her lap as her mouth fell open, landing with a light plop.  Looking out of the tops of her eyes, she scanned the bar.  She considered briefly allowing her head to fall into her hands, but she instead reenergized her spine, sitting up and putting her elbows on the bar.  “It’s just my ex-husband, dragging his hee-.”

“I know, you don’t have to get into it, I said I understand, about awful people I mean.”

“Thanks,” Vanessa was grateful for the opportunity to forget her problems.  “My name’s Vanessa, yours is?”

“Alexandra, but just call me Alex, and I know your name, you’re Vanessa Tomison, right?”  Alex smiled with all her teeth.

Vanessa chuckled loudly.  “Vanessa Tomison, yes.”  She drank deep from her Bloody Mary, then shook her compatriot’s hand.  She for the first time inspected Alex up and down.  Alex was dressed in a tailored gray suit, with a matted-finish leather attaché case at her hip.  She looked like a lawyer or a CEO, someone busy and humorless, with her hair in a tight ponytail like Merris from Cheers, but her toothy grin and giggle made her seem fun and approachable like a coed.  “And you’re Alex, before I learn your last name maybe I can buy you a drink.”

“Oh no this is my third,” said Alex, raising her glass of black liquid and held it up, before lowering and placing it in front of her.  “But I’ll get you another bloody Mary when that one’s done.”

Vanessa, without missing a beat raised her glass and downed the rest of her drink.  “Bartender, another bloody Mary please.”  The two women laughed into each other’s faces.  Alex raised her hand over her head, Vanessa obliged her by slapping it, and continued to ask questions.  “What’s your name?  I mean what’s your full name, Alex?”

“Alexandra Fritsch,” Alex said, holding out her hand, “pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, Alexandra.”  Vanessa began to feel tipsy, viewing the world through increasingly blurry lenses.  Suddenly struck, she burst out laughing, her mouth held in an open smile.  “If someone’s gonna be present for such an embarrassing, moment, I should know their name.”

“You should, but can you?  I mean really, I mean what if my names’s not Alexandra?”  She tilted her head, arching her left eyebrow to seem suspicious.  “What if it’s Duchess?”

Vanessa chuckled and sipped her drink.  “Then you’re probably a dog, if your name’s Duchess.”

Alex leaned back there, allowing her eyelids to droop low above her pupils.  “My dad used to call me Duchess.”

Vanessa’s face flashed a deep red as she struggled to suppress a laugh.  “I’m so sorry.”

“No it’s fine, he’s alive.”  Alex took a long drink of black liquid through her straw.  “He just doesn’t call me Duchess anymore.  He just called me Duchess when I was a kid.”

“Did you used to hate it?”

Alex sneered as if she’d smelled something offensive.  “Hate it?  No, I loved it!  When he would reach down and scratch behind my ear and call me Duchess, some of my favorite memories as a kid.”

“O-Okay, yeah,” Vanessa nodded slightly, considering that she should probably change the subject.  “So, where are you heading to, today?”

“Do you ever wonder why people grow the way they do?”  This question, odd and open to interpretation as it was, made Vanessa immediately begin to scan the seats around her, looking for something that would allow her to escape.  Seeing only light coats and sets of luggage, she responded.

“Grow the way they do?”  Vanessa began to fidget and look at her cell phone.  “What way is that?”

“I mean it’s interesting, what forms people.  I mean I’m sure you meet nasty, evil people all the time, I mean everybody does, so what do you think about it?”  Alex crinkled her nose and played with her hair and yawned, like a kitten.

Feeling full of alcohol and joy, Vanessa leaned forward, placing her hand on Alex’s shoulder.  “Can you- I mean, I just wanna keep it light, ya know?  I’m drunk by now and I just wanna, forget, about all that stuff.”

“Oh no I’m sorry, don’t listen to me I’m a lil’ tipsy too, I guess.”  An explosive cackle escaped from Alex, causing her to jerk reflexively.  She continued to laugh, making a performance of it by slapping the table with her bare right hand.  “I’m- I’m just a lil’ tipsy, and I’m, I’m, ugh, I’m nothing.”

Vanessa bristled, unsure of what to do.  “You’re not nothing, look at you.  You’re beautiful, you’ve got a very nice, neat suit on.  You’re a professional, obviously, I mean, what-what do you do?”

“Nothing, not a god damn thing, that’s what I do.”  Alex finished off her drink.  “I travel the world drinking in airport bars.”

“Yeah I do that too,” said Vanessa, who was beginning to enjoy this line of dialogue.  She’d been drinking in bars before, and she’d enjoyed it.

Since she was 12, Vanessa had been a tennis prodigy, and so hers was not a life that allowed space for any kind of debauchery.  For her entire life, she’d at all times been kept track of.  She’d had a practice schedule, a match schedule, a food schedule, a sleep schedule, a study schedule, and eventually even a sex schedule.  And so after her retirement at age 33 after finally winning the French Open, she’d gone on a bit of a tear.

Now she was 53, and things had cooled off since her wild days, but on occasion Vanessa still drank.  “I’m drinking a little harder though, because I’m not flying to a match, or even to give lessons to some rich kid.  I’m going to L.A. to deal with my fucking ex-husband.”  She scoffed as her hand dropped from it’s position holding her chin up and slapped the table with an open palm.

Alex smiled wide.  “Oh, he’s your awful person.”

“Oh no, he’s not awful.”  Vanessa considered, then drank deeply from her Bloody Mary.  “Yes he is, he’s the fucking worst.”

Alex smiled wide, allowing her mouth to open slightly.  After an extended pause, she rippled with laughter that sounded like cannon fire.  “Oh yes!  Yes!”  As her palm slapped the bar top Alex shook her head slowly left to right.  “I hate the worst.  I mean just those people in your life that just, stand in the way, you know?”

Vanessa answered, “No I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” but really she had thought about them.  The enemies, the villains in her life had been making themselves known.  In the guise of Marcus Edwards, whom she’d once fallen in love with, was a true villain, a true enemy.  Considering Marcus and the havoc he had wrought, she corrected herself.  “No I get it, I know shitty people.”

Alex continued, “But I was just gonna ask, I mean, you know about those people, don’t you, who-who are, clearly,” she looked off in the distance, playing with her straw keeping one end submerged in her drink, “superfluous.”

“Superfluous?”

“Well not only superfluous, wicked too, but, but–” Alex placed her right palm on her forehead, wet with sweat.  She peeled her lips tight, exposing her teeth, and from her leapt an anguished sucking sound.  “Sorry about that.  I’m kind of messed up.”

As she furrowed her brow, Vanessa tipped her head to the left.  Alex was so young, Vanessa realized, though her clothes were expensive, neat and pressed, they were thrown together and messy.  She walked and spoke with confidence, but frequently seemed to forget what she’d been talking about.  Vanessa felt some twinge of concern, and a vague wish to rescue Alex from herself.  “You’re not messed up, I do the same thing.  I get, it, you get caught up in whatever you’re saying or thinking, and it just sort of runs away with you.  I get it.”

“Yeah the same kind of thing happens to you, huh?”  Alex reached into her case and pulled out a simple burgundy glasses case and opened the front of it.  She pulled out what looked like a schoolgirl’s first pair; they had large, circular lenses and bulky, black frames.  “Like when you were talking to yourself a minute ago.”

Vanessa laughed, finished her drink and placed its empty glass on the bar.  Reaching her feet out to touch the floor, she shifted her weight and separated herself from the stool.  She stepped back and touched Alex’s shoulder.  “Well I’m gonna go to my gate now.”

Alex shot her hands out in a sudden, panicked way as she reached for Vanessa’s hand.  “I’m sorry, that was supposed to be funny, I didn’t mean anything by it.”  Her head lowered and she looked at the ground.

“How old are you?” Vanessa asked, truly curious.

“Twenty-five,” Alex said, continuing to cast her eyes downwards.  Vanessa was struck by a pang of compassion, considering what she’d been at twenty-five, sneaking out of a hotel so her coach wouldn’t see her, and always, always getting caught.

Vanessa looked at Alex for a second, and spoke with the voice of a trusted elder confidant and mentor.  “I think you’re doin’ fine.”  As she turned and started to walk away, Vanessa put her hand on Alex’s shoulder, trying to create a touching goodbye.

Alex chuckled, shaking her head and keeping her eyes forward.  Just as Vanessa was about to turn the corner and step into the flowing river of people, she heard Alex loudly say “I’m not,” and start laughing.

Vanessa felt odd.  Alex had reminded her of her own youth, and filled her with conflicting emotions.  She remembered the intensity of feeling, the glorious highs she’d felt on the court, the sense of energy coursing through her veins, and she did miss it.  More than that though Alex reminded her of the negativity and darkness that came with youth.  Confusion and horror, the way she would be seized by righteously violent indignation, only to fall to her knees and feel sorry about the blood dripping from her hands.  She’d been awful, she knew now.  Mean, defensive and cocksure, she’d told people to their face that she was better than them.

So maybe she’d judged Marcus harshly, and she should try to empathize.  Thinking it over, she thought maybe it was just that he was so in love with her, and that he couldn’t let go of that love.  This complete devotion couldn’t solely be negative, could it?  Her post-retirement tear of drugs and sex had led her on a sort of downward spiral, and that was when Marcus had come into her life, and she did credit him as her savior of a sort.  He had encouraged her to straighten up, and to devote herself to tennis again, which she found then that she still did love.

For the last fifteen years she’d been one of the most sought after and head-hunted tennis coaches in the nation, with a standing contract as chief consultant for the U.S. Davis cup team, and having coached both male and female winners of majors from all over the world.  Marcus had been with her through all this success, and their wedding had been wonderful.  The first few years of her marriage had been joyous, but over time his charms had worn thin, and she’d sought an amicable separation.

Vanessa again plucked a cell phone out of her pocket and hit a couple buttons on its face.  She was calling Marcus again, but this time she’d be the reasonable one, always speaking softer than he was.  “Hello, Marcus, I was short with you earlier and I think I might have been a little unfair about some things.  Yes, I’m heading to the plane now, I’ll see you late tonight or early tomorrow, and–”

Marcus had interrupted her, and her face contorted in frustration.  “Look it’s over, M/ark, I’m not coming back, I just want to sign these–”  Vanessa scoffed as she tore the phone away from her head, hung it up and planted it back in her bag.  Her exhaustion was tenable and obvious.  Marcus, she realized, was loathe to free her.  Whether his retention of their legal bond was evidence of worship and devotion, or merely an operation of spite didn’t matter.  She wanted to be done with him and never to see him again, and the least he could do would be to give that to her.

Her want of divorce had become more frenzied in recent months, as she’d fallen in love.  His name was Aloysius Mertin, and Vanessa felt she could not have asked for a more balanced and understanding man.  Aloysius had never met Marcus, and Vanessa had in fact taken steps to hide her new relationship from her ex-husband.  She suspected that somehow Marcus had learned of her new love, and set out to destroy it, or at least ensure that she would never marry again.

Vanessa saw Marcus as a petulant child, screaming at the universe for denying him candy.  As much as Marcus had become a figure of frustration and anger in her life, when she was honest with herself she recognized that she still had feelings for him.  When she saw him, she could still see the kindness in his eyes, that night when he’d seen her all alone at that table and he’d come over and said “Hi, do you wanna come sit at this table?”

And than later, on their date, he just said “let’s just sit.”  And they just sat down in the middle of the sidewalk next to Schuba’s, wrapping their legs together.  And he was so cool, and she was really disarmed by his openness and honesty.  He’d even asked for a kiss, and though they’d been slowly dry-humping on the sidewalk for an hour or more, she said no even though she really really wanted to say “yes.”

That, Vanessa realized, was the past, and that she shouldn’t let pleasant memories of what he was cloud an accurate observation of what he is.  And he is a problem, and if she wanted to live her life happy and free, she had to delete him somehow.  The last half hour of wait before her flight was set to depart, she thought of her options.  Short of the illegal, inconceivable, and completely obvious solution, there were, she thought, legal routes still open to her.

There were restraining orders, of course, but Marcus had money, and that made him very difficult to hold on a piece of paper.  “It’s just paper,” he’d said, speaking of their potential divorce.  “Paper can’t make me forget that I love you, and when you see that you do still love me, you’ll agree.  Or not, it doesn’t matter.  I will never stop.”

She’d tried to be strong, careful not to blink, “Yes you will.”  She’d lifted her bag from the floor and placed it on her lap, unzipping it and pulling out a clipboard.  Her lawyer, sitting next to her did the same thing with his briefcase, pausing to whisper nonsense to her.  “You’ll have to,” she’d said, as she zipped up her luggage and placed its wheels on the floor.

The sound of the rolling wheels trailed from her outstretched arm as she pulled alongside her a small rolling carry-on bag.  It was the Tumi ‘Alpha’ continental carry-on, which was absurdly expensive ($1595.00).  Marcus had given it to her when they’d first started dating, and he was showering her with gifts.  They were gifts she too could’ve easily bought herself, as tournament winnings, endorsement deals, and her award-winning tennis camp conspired to give her a fortune almost comparable to his, he knew more of the finer things, and had cursed Vanessa with a taste for them.

So now all the gifts he’d given her, even if she’d since replaced them, were still a reminder of how important to her Marcus had once been.  Every time she put the bag down and felt it glide smoothly over airport linoleum, she thought to herself “This is a good bag.”  And she remembered when he’d given it to her, and that they’d once been happy together.

She arrived at Gate 26c, the gate her flight was set to depart from, and stood in a long line.  The people in the line all looked haggard, as Vanessa imagined she had to be looking.  She felt as though stress were a transparent film of only slightly viscous sludge, and she was covered in it.  Standing in line, she recognized the oppressive dreariness of the situation, and was glad to be rescued from it by the voice of Alexandra Fritsch, her new twenty-something drinking buddy, yelling “Vanessa!” from far away behind her.

It started faint, and Vanessa grinned subtly as Alex neared.  Though the way their conversation had ended did disturb her slightly, she felt that she needed the distraction, and welcomed Alex with a friendly smile.  “You’re going to LA too?”

Alex folded her hands in front of her knees and spoke sheepishly, “Yeah, yeah I am, I live there, I guess.”

“You guess,” Vanessa said as she laughed out loud, feeling still pretty tipsy.  “Well have a good flight.”

“Thank you I will.”

As they sat across from each other in the waiting area, a stewardess picked up the intercom and spoke into it.  “Flight 380 to Los Angeles, now boarding first class passengers.  Both Alex and Vanessa walked toward the entrance to the airplane trailing rolling carry-on luggage behind them.  When they saw each other from across the doorway, they each grinned and nodded, striding calmly onto the plane.

Vanessa told herself that she probably shouldn’t drink any more, and grinned in recognition of the fact that she was likely to ignore her own advice.  She thought that it might be a very fun flight, and also that if she were not careful, she might ruin her life before touchdown.  She smiled to herself at the half-joking notion.

Like all people, Vanessa, upon entering the airplane’s passenger hold, had first to find her seat.  Until she found her place, separated out and attended to, she couldn’t be comfortable.  So she sat in seat 3B, a prized seat in first class, both in the center and near the aisle.  She arrived at her seat, retrieved her iPod and laptop, set down her isometric seat cover, and settled into place.  As she was just about to finally sit as she noticed, to her thrilling trepidation, Alex was sitting just across the aisle from her.

“Hey Alex, this is gonna be fun!”  Vanessa felt that Alex’s previous behavior at the bar, though concerning, could be forgotten without consequence.  She imagined herself saying “We were both drunk, it’s no big deal.”  This was fantasy, however, as she thought it better, instead, to try and reintroduce fun into their relationship.   “Okay, whatta ya say I buy your first drink, and you buy every other drink.”

After her joke, Vanessa laughed, but was quickly silenced as a concerned scowl crept over Alex’s face.  “Once we’re up in the air we’ll have fun, but I’m really not good with takeoffs, so I’ve just gotta psych myself up a little bit.  We’ll talk when we’re airborne, though.”

“Oh,” Vanessa said, slightly embarrassed.  As she took her seat her eyes darted around the cabin, and she rolled them as she anticipated tedium waiting for them on the plane.  Ever since she was a little kid being carted from city to city for junior tennis tournaments, she’d always loved flying.  Then she considered that, being the experienced flyer she considered herself, she was just the person to help Alex through a tough flight.  “It’s okay, just relax.”

Strangers