Barber Chair Prophets

This following is a novella I wrote in 2002 for the Anvil Press 3-Day Novel Writing Contest. At the time I was working in the animation industry and the only writing I’d ever done was screenplays and self-published mini comic books. I was in a bit of a writing funk and needed some sort of jumpstart. Upon seeing the ad for the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest I thought this might just be the opportunity to try something different and get my creative juices flowing again. I was also single, and the idea of holing myself away for a long weekend with no sleep and only my computer was strangely appealing. So I did some outlining (no actual story was allowed to be written outside of the three-day period, but some planning was certainly expected), stocked up on coffee and Twinkies and got down to business.
I think I slept for roughly three hours that weekend, and it actually felt great. I was in the best mindset I’ve ever been and I just wrote, wrote, wrote. The following is the end result, and I’m still pretty proud of it.
I didn’t place in the contest at all, but the best part of the whole experience was that I loved it, and it propelled me to wanting to write something more substantial, which eventually turned into my first novel, Molt.
Hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading!

Barber Chair Prophets

ONE

abandon…v. 1 leave permanently. 2 give up (an action or practice) completely. 3 (abandon oneself to) give in to (a desire) completely. n. complete lack of self-consciousness or self-control.

– ORIGIN Old French abandoner.

It takes a special sense of self-control to pluck a nose hair from a dead man with a pair of tweezers. You feel like warning him to stay motionless. Just hold still, this won’t hurt a bit. Even as you squeeze the hair between the ends of the instrument, you might still half-expect the slightest cringe. The nerves beneath the eyebrows might become skittish. But he’d have just about as much of a reaction if you tried to pluck a pubic hair from his left nut with a chainsaw on a moving train during the Big One.

Not everyone here takes the time to get to those nose follicles of all our clients, but I consider myself something of a perfectionist. Maybe the long Saturday night hours at the city morgue are getting to me, or perhaps I’ve always had this kind of compassion for the recently deceased. I’m not too worried either way. The truth is, I’d much rather associate with the folks in this room than with the ones outside of it.

In fact, hold on a second…there, got it. Boy, that’s a wiry little one, isn’t it? I gently lay the last hair in the tiny tray with the others.

Take this guy, for example. I don’t know his first name. The only information I use to keep track of each body is: last name, first initial, cause of death. His first name is M. Let’s assume it stands for Merle. He doesn’t really look like a Merle, but I think the world could use a few more Merles, don’t you agree? Of course, Merle’s dead now, so the world still may need a couple more…

I imagine Merle was originally from Nebraska. The Cornhusker State. He’s got that kind of nose. And his fingers are long and slender, as if he played an instrument of some sort. Perhaps he was a snake charmer. Yes. Merle the snake charmer from Nebraska. That sounds about right. It’s plausible. Johnny Carson was from Nebraska.

I take Merle’s hair into my rubber-gloved hands, and I run my fingers through it, much like his mother had probably done years ago. Hair continues to grow for some time after the body dies, so I give him a little trim. The scissors are barbers’ scissors, and I simply pretend that Merle is another satisfied paying customer. A few snips here and there, and he’s looking good. For a dead man, that is. I run a brush through his dead hair to get out any loose strands. These hairs are carefully collected and placed into the tray with the others.

While most people are out on Saturday nights pretending to themselves that they’re having a good time, Merle’s in the morgue tonight with the other folks who used to have good times too. I bet Merle had a real good time. At least up until he had that allergic reaction to the fellow’s urine he drank. Who could’ve known? I’m sure those fraternity pranksters had no idea this would’ve happened. I’m sure Merle had no idea this would’ve happened. And I’m positive that none of them were thinking of me while Merle was choking to death on that bar stool. But here I am. What strange paths our lives take as they get ever closer to the end. What odd people we encounter along the way. Could Merle count me as someone he’d known in his life? Probably not. And yet, I can consider Merle as someone I’ve known. And I’d hazard a guess that I know him a lot better than half the people that are going to his funeral next week. But I guess that’s the perspective one has when he’s plucked another man’s nose hair.

I debate whether I should give the rest of his body hair a trim or even a shave, but I come to the conclusion that I never knew Merle that well.

I give Merle a pat on the stomach before sliding him back into the wall. The next time I come here, Merle will be gone. His funeral is on Thursday. And I’m one of the few people who will see him ever again, for the rest of eternity. That’s a long time to go without any companionship. And I feel like I’m already halfway there.

I check the clock. It’s four in the morning. Time to get out of here. I head to the tiny sink across the room, slipping my white lab coat off along the way and tossing it onto the table. I throw the gloves into the garbage. The mirror waits for me, as does my reflection. They wait like the schoolyard bully who knows he’s going to get you after class. The bell rings, and there he is. Pow! Right in the kisser.

I see him. He’s a man in his early forties. His poorly manicured beard seems to turn from brown to gray right before my eyes. It hangs off his face much like a flag hangs from the pole, eagerly awaiting the wind to bring it back to life. Blue suspenders keep his slacks from falling any lower than they already have. His stomach tries it’s best to burst through the bottom button of his red and white striped cotton shirt. Horizontal stripes are not flattering. The sides of his belly are itching to get away from that leather belt. The kids call them ‘love handles’. But if love truly is hanging on, it’s doing a hell of a good job to stay unnoticed by this man. I can feel his eyes looking at mine, but I avoid contact. Who knows what trouble just a glance may cause.

My name is Jerome. My life isn’t quite as interesting as Merle’s must’ve been. And I’m okay with that.

My full name is Jerome Feckler Krakow. I don’t particularly like the way my name sounds. Most people’s names roll off the tongue, and sound good together. My name seems like the train wreck of all names. Like they were supposed to get somewhere else, but ended up colliding head on into one big mess of letters.

I’ve got a Jewish name, but as far as I or anyone else in my family knew, we never had any Jewish relatives. I don’t know where the hell my parents came up with the name Feckler, but I detest it. I don’t speak with them anymore; my father’s dead and I have no idea where my mother ended up.

I have the distinction of being the first known man from Michigan to be conceived and born on an airplane. I say I was born in Michigan, but I’ve never actually stepped foot in the state. It’s true though; I was just born in Michigan’s airspace, somewhere over Muskegon. Iggy Pop was from Michigan. The Wolverine State. My dad was a pilot. That’s where he met my mom. “The Mile-High Club”, I think they call it. My parents thought it was so romantic to conceive a child 30,000 feet in the air, and that it would be even more romantic to give birth up there too. Mom got a job as a stewardess when she was already four months pregnant, and their scheme worked out just the way they planned. February 29th 1964, flight 304, Seattle to New York, 4:52 PM. An emergency landing was out of the question by the time anyone else figured out what was happening. We all landed at Idlewild Airport in New York. My parents always told me that the airport was renamed a little while after that to JFK all because of me. I haven’t been to an airport since then.

I flick the laboratory lights off, and lock the door behind me as I exit. I flash my security tag to the guard at the front door. His name’s Joe. He’s been married for four years, and he’s been cheating on his wife for three and a half. He tells me it’s okay, because he caught her cheating first. My question to him was, “is it still considered cheating if you’re both taking part?” I don’t even remember what his answer to that was. He says goodnight. I wave good riddance.

The city is dark tonight. It feels like every streetlight has taken the night off. The crisp October breeze catches my warm gasps of air, and carries them up into the sky. I’ll never breathe that air again. Another part of me is gone forever. I used to be able to easily dismiss ideas like that, like everyone else does. But I can’t anymore. In order to get anywhere in this dead-end existence, you have to acknowledge your past. That’s the key to succeeding at death: acknowledge what’s already been. What had come, only to go again. A trip to the city morgue should be like seeing your favorite team winning the championship. They’re all there, all of your heroes. I don’t know why there aren’t more elementary school field trips to the morgue. It’s unquestionably more inspiring and educationally stimulating than a trip to the local pulp mill.

Master the ability to acknowledge what has been, and trust me, you’ll be eager to see your life end.

TWO

adapt…v. 1 make suitable for a new use or purpose. 2 become adjusted to new conditions.

– ORIGIN Latin adaptare.

I adjust the leather seat to conform to my own personal contour. I turn the mirrors just enough so that I’m aware of everything around me. No one is going to creep up behind me and stab me in the neck. The seat belt secures me in place, but not too tightly. I feel safe without even knowing it’s there. I swear that the best seats in the world must be the ones that are installed in buses.

Not the seats for the public of course. Those cold hard plastic blue and orange seats shouldn’t be set aside for even the most malevolent of humanity. I’m talking about the bus driver. This guy is generally regarded as being about three rungs up from the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, yet the world deems him worthy to require the seat of a god. I assume the only reason there isn’t a third-world slave standing beside him with a large feather fan, and another down on his knees spit-shining the driver’s shoes is because that wouldn’t leave any room for the passengers to get on and off the bus.

I already took the liberty of changing the signs on the front and side of the bus to read “330 Ferguson.” I’ve been driving the same route for eight months now, and if management has any inclination to change it, I’ll be looking for a new job next week. 330 Ferguson is the only one I’ll drive. And they know it. Besides, nobody else really wants to do the five-in-the-morning Sunday shift anyway. They don’t want to miss out on their precious kids’ hockey practice. Or their valued church services. Or their shitty hangovers. Me? I don’t have kids. My six-to-four Saturday night shift at the morgue doesn’t really accommodate any weekend drinking. And God and I aren’t really on speaking terms right now, so Sunday mornings don’t bother me.

Another upside to the early Sunday shift is the complete lack of people I have to deal with. Sure there’s the odd senile widow who’s forgotten to set her clock for the last eight years and thinks it’s time to go to the drug store to pick up her colostomy bags and a birthday card just big enough to slip in a five dollar cheque for her twenty-six year old grandson. And of course there’s the Goth kids that are just coming home from some underground rave the night before, and are too whacked out on alcohol, crack, and laundry detergent to be able to form a coherent sentence. As long as they can still put the coins in the slot like any mentally capable four year old should be able to do, they can sit anywhere they want on my bus. I think being a bus driver is much like working for the government: it’s not my job to like these people; I just have to take their money. And make sure the folks in wheelchairs aren’t about to go anywhere.

And those kids that want to throw up or defecate in the back of the bus? They can go right ahead. It isn’t in my job description to clean up the mess at the end of the day. It used to be, but it’s not anymore.

I turn the key in the ignition, and start her up. The engine roars like some dying jungle cat in the zoo. It knows this is the best it’ll ever have it, but it simply can’t wait to just get it over with.

And so it goes. I pull out of the bus terminal, and start my repetitious journey towards disillusionment. 330 Ferguson takes me through the inner city to the outer reaches of its’ ever-growing heart of darkness. Suburbia. I hate this place. I can tolerate the city, but this is too much.

I think back to one morning two months ago, when my bus hit a dog in Suburbia. I saw it dart across the road at the last second. The thing must’ve had a death wish or something. Too bad it was a dog and not some local resident. I pulled the bus over to take a look.

Just stepping outside of my protective metal shell made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if it was a feeling in the air, or if it was the air itself, but I knew I didn’t like it. I was too close to where I’d been trying to avoid my entire adult life. I probably wouldn’t have even stopped the bus if it were a person I had hit. I walked towards the curled up ball of hair and steaming blood. Sure enough, the dog was dead. I quickly got back inside and instinctively sealed the door behind me. I radioed back to the station with the coordinates and requested an ambulance, or whatever it is they use to take a dead dog off the street. If it was a man, I’m sure they’d send an ambulance. What’s the difference really?

And that was the last time I breathed the air of Suburbia. The last time my skin was exposed to their world. I think of that morning every time I go through here.

Driving a bus is not a passion of mine. I don’t particularly like it that much at all. Some days, I want to just drive it off my regular route, and head for some place I’ve never been. But there aren’t too many other jobs available at this time on a Sunday morning. Buses generally run all the time, even on holidays. And Sunday mornings was an empty slot I had to fill.

The sun won’t start to rise for another two and a half hours, so that gives me plenty of time to take a peak into their despondent lives. With the sun down, it’s much easier to see it all. Just look for a light in a window, and you’re the prime witness to their dreary adventures. I can see them now. A fat man looks in the fridge for another unnecessary snack. I spot another man; this one is in front of the TV, mesmerized by the lone evangelist attempting to convert millions of viewers. A woman sits outside under the porch light with a lit cigarette, probably wondering if she should just toss the smoke through the window behind her and watch it all go up in flames. Like a great sacrificial pyre. This is the sad story of their lives. And I watch it religiously every Sunday.

The buzzer dings. I look back in surprise, and see one of those Goth punks half conscious at the back of the bus. I don’t even remember picking one up yet this morning. I pull the bus over to the side of the road, and wait for the kid to step down. He’s just standing there. Well, teetering a little, but basically standing. I wait.

Nothing.

“Step down.” I say, gazing at him from the mirror.

No reaction. What is this kid on? Probably one of those gas-guzzlers. I’ve heard about them. They remove the car’s gas cap, stick a long rubber tube down into the gas tank, and proceed to suck away. Gulp, gulp, gulp. I swear I’ve read about it somewhere.

“Step down.” I repeat, a little louder.

The kid looks up to me and gives me the finger. “Fuck you!” is his only reply as he steps down and out of the bus. I really don’t know when the middle finger became so offensive. Is this supposed to intimidate me? I have one too.

I start to drive off, and the kid kicks the side of the bus in rage. Kick it all you want you little twerp; it’s not my bus.

I guess you could say I don’t like people very much. But it’s not my fault; I didn’t raise them. I simply wonder when society became so extraordinarily socially retarded. But maybe it was always this way.

My problem is the childish lack of disrespect. Is it possible to become so infuriated with something one moment, that you don’t even give a damn the next?

This is why I work seven days a week at seven different jobs. I may be intolerant of the general populace, but I’ve still got to work. I just choose not to associate with anybody for any longer than I have to. Once a week on a very inconsequential basis is adequate. It’s a good system, and it hasn’t failed me yet.

I reach the bus terminal in the heart of Suburbia, where I have to park for ten minutes. I shut the engine off. Drivers meander around outside their buses, smoking and talking shit to one another. Some attempt to acknowledge my arrival, but I’m smart enough to avoid direct eye contact. There are vagrants digging through garbage cans and sleeping on the benches. There’s no way I’m leaving this bus. If the need should arise where I have to use the facilities, I hold it in. It’s just another hour and a half back to the city. There’s no way I’m going to step foot out there. A man could be murdered right before my eyes, and I wouldn’t go out there. A terrorist could pop up from the seats behind me with explosives covering him from head to toe, and there’s no way I’d even consider leaving this bus. Better to die in some place you can barely even tolerate than somewhere else surrounded by the scabs of humanity. And I’m not just talking about the bus drivers.

My ten minutes are up. I turn the engine back on, and pull out of there as fast as you can pull a bus out of anywhere. I’m heading back to the city. I do this route twice on Sunday mornings. There and back and there and back.

It’s not long before I pick up one of those ladies I’d talked about earlier. She sits at the front of the bus in the “handicapped and elderly” section. I don’t say good morning. She attempts to talk to me about the weather and her twenty-six year old grandson, but I don’t give a response of any sort. She must think I’m acknowledging her somehow, because she keeps on going. Like that brainless pink bunny.

I keep telling myself that I’ll be home soon. But it’s never soon enough.

THREE

apostasy /uh-poss-tuh-si/…n. 1 abandonment of a belief or principle.

– ORIGIN Greek apostasies ‘desertion’.

I unlock the door and enter my apartment. Marlon greets me with his usual clawing of the legs. Kicking him off doesn’t work anymore, so I just scratch his hairless head as sincerely as I can, and make my way inside. The answering machine blinks, telling me I have two new messages. Messages used to annoy the hell out of me. But not now, since I’m sure it’s nobody I know that’s calling.

I hit the play button and listen as I hang up my jacket and remove my shoes. The first message is about the job at the photo lab I applied for. They’ve found somebody else. I slide my suspenders under my arms, and let them fall to my hips. The second message is for the parking lot attendant position. They don’t have an opening on Tuesday nights anymore. Marlon seems to be more concerned about this than I am.

I delete the messages, and head to the bathroom for a shower.

As I dry my hair, Marlon jumps up onto the bathroom counter and gives me that look. His eyes hide under a furrowed brow, and one ear turns down as the opposite side of his mouth turns up.

“Don’t give me that look buddy.” I say sternly. He’s been giving me the look since the day I got him. I’m not even sure what it means, but I know I wouldn’t like it if I found out.

Animals are a lot like people: you can’t win with them. Cats have attitude and dogs are stupid. If I had to choose, I’d take the attitude, but I didn’t have a choice with Marlon.

I used to work Fridays at the animal shelter. All I really had to do was just make sure the animals were well fed and happy. From the parakeets to the marmots. I think I was fired because I don’t really know the first thing about how to make something happy.

A woman called one day claiming she found an injured dog and that she would bring it by the shelter. Turns out it wasn’t a dog at all, but a hairless cat. But it’s so ugly she couldn’t tell. Even one of the veterinarians swore it was a dog. Apparently, the cat slinked into the woman’s back yard where her kids were playing. But anyone who considers running around the yard with steak knives and a box of old records “playing,” probably needs to work on their parental supervision skills a bit more. I’m sure she explained to her husband later just why exactly the kids were throwing his vintage records around like Frisbees and smashing them into the tree stumps. And I really hope she explained to him why his best friend was over that afternoon, and why it was that she couldn’t hear the kids outside until the cat screamed from having his tail cut off. But I’m sure that’s none of my business…

Anyway, the cat just latched on to me, and I had no choice but to take him home. He wouldn’t let go until we entered my apartment. And he hasn’t left since. Cats have the amazing ability to remember where they came from and where they’ve been, but Marlon doesn’t seem to care about any place but his current one. I’ve even tried tossing him out my window a couple of times, the third floor window, but he always manages to somehow show up at my door again. Now I just leave the windows wide open and cross my fingers, hoping he’ll take the hint.

I open the door to my office. This is where I spend my time when I’m not working. The walls are all painted a dark red. I found the color helped me immensely while I was updating resumes or painting. But I can’t see the red anymore except for the bottom corner of one wall. Calendar pages have completely covered the rest of the wall space. There must be twenty-five years up there, all in chronological order. From the top of the wall to the right, and down to the floor. All around the room. Month after month, I tear off the calendar page, and stick it up there with the others. My entire adult life is on these walls. Every holiday. Every doctor’s appointment. Every interview for every job I’ve ever had, and every one I didn’t get. I think I started this to try and keep track of my life, with the thought that it may serve some kind of purpose and in turn, give me a purpose of my own. But now I don’t even remember, I just continue out of habit.

Two paintings sit on an easel in front of me. On the left is a painting I did when I was sixteen years old. It’s a portrait of a friend I had. His name was Arthur Vaughan Biesen.

Arthur was my best friend, but that was many years ago. His face was long and slender; his hair was long and greasy. Arthur had some kind of problem with his digestive system, causing him to have to use the shitter what seemed like every hour and a half. He’d say things like “I gotta go drop the kiddies off at the pool,” and then disappear for twenty minutes.

We were in a band together. I played the drums, and he sang and played guitar. There was another guy too, but I can’t recall his name or face. We were all punks, and I was happy when it was all over between us. Arthur thought life was meant to go one way, but I knew otherwise. I told him he’d never be able to perform at a two-hour concert with his digestive condition. Arthur couldn’t accept that. My nose is still noticeably crooked to this day.

I painted a lot in high school, and my plan was to paint our portraits for our first rock album. But our aspirations were far greater than our talent. We only had two songs, which were both Aerosmith rip-offs, and we didn’t even play those that well. When we couldn’t decide on what our third song would be, we went our separate ways. But I kept his portrait.

Next to it on the same easel, sits a replica of the same painting. I’ve been trying for years to reproduce the exact same picture, although I can’t recall my reasons why anymore. I want to get the same colors, the same brushstrokes, and the same goofy smile on this kid’s face. But so far I’ve failed. How hard can it be to do something you’ve already done? In the closet sits one hundred and twenty-three answers to that question. Some are half-finished. Some are near completion. But all of them are imperfect. This one isn’t turning out so good either, now that I look at it.

Past the easel sits a television from the late seventies. I don’t use it anymore for two reasons. One: I would rather strangle the life out of my own weary body than watch another second of TV, and two: the screen is smashed to pieces. Reason number two probably has a stronger case. Now, I hate TV for all of the same reasons as everyone else who says they hate it:

For the incessant commercials that spew poppycock messages of the necessity for self-worth and popularity.

For the late night boob-fest of phone sex advertisements that are free for women and $4.95 a minute for men.

And for Martha Stewart.

But I also despise television for the little things that most of the simple-minded masses can’t comprehend:

For the fact that there’s actually a demand for a TV show that teaches us how to analyze and scrutinize the dating patterns of single twenty-somethings.

For the flag people in car races. Are they really necessary anymore? I’m sure some form of radio contact in the drivers’ helmets is adequate enough to tell them whether or not they’re on the last lap. How much money are these guys getting paid to wave a checkered flag anyway?

And for Bob Saget.

But the day that I kicked my TV screen in so hard that I heard a car alarm go off outside, was the day I discovered the little animated storm cloud on the nightly news weather forecast. What was wrong with a simple picture of a fluffy cloud with some rain drops and a cute yellow lightning bolt? Some smart-ass executive with dollar-sign eyes who doesn’t know the first thing about tying his own shoes, much less the weather, thought it was necessary to make that cloud hover around the screen like a UFO. To have torrential rains shoot out like a possessed fire hose, and great bolts of lightning firing through the sky as if Zeus himself was responsible. It makes me sick.

Against the far wall of my office is a small desk. I’m in the process of writing a book right now, but not in the manner one might expect. I’m writing my own dictionary. How did this begin? While polishing up a resume a few years ago, I realized I didn’t know how to spell the word “application.” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if it had one “P” or two. I think it was a momentary memory lapse or something, because I’m sure I’d spelled it before. So I came to the conclusion that I needed my own dictionary. But the only place I could find one was at Paragraphs, the big corporate bookstore. Now I’m a firm believer in not supporting the big businesses, so I decided to simply write my own personal edition. Borrowing a dictionary from the city library I worked at on Wednesdays, I began to copy it out onto paper. There’s going to be one hell of a late charge on it when I’m finished, especially considering it’s a “For Reference Only” book and I’m only up to the “F’s.”

Now, with the freedom to write your own dictionary, things are bound to get out of hand. It’s only natural. I never saw the reason for words like chivvy, leveret, and legerdemain, so I’m taking them out. I also feel the necessity for certain words that didn’t make it the first time around. Words like ashauer, hjoil, subjagular, and tud are all going to be in my edition. “Feckler”, of course, is never going to make it anywhere.

I’m on the word “Fabricate” right now:

fabricate…v. 1 invent (false information). 2 construct or manufacture (an industrial product)

– ORIGIN Latin fabricare.

I don’t know why I stopped at that word yesterday. Maybe there’s no real reason at all. Or maybe it means everything. But I think this about every word I temporarily stop at.

Marlon comes sauntering in and jumps up onto the desk. He sits up before me and gives me that look once more.

“You know I don’t like that look Marlon.” I say to him as I sit down at my desk.

One day I’ll get a reaction from him, but it’s not going to be today. I pick up my 2B pencil, and get back to work.

“Fabulous.”

FOUR

ashauer…n. 1 a person that must fabricate lies to feel worthwhile in society.

adj. 1 composed of half-truths. 2 full of shit.

– ORIGIN unknown.

The sign outside the fruit market reads “Open at 8:30”. I wonder why this is? Because they actually open every morning at 8:35. How can a simple fruit stand contribute so much to the general laziness of this society?

“I’m not lazy, I’m disciplined,” is what I heard someone say on the bus one morning. This coming directly after the very same passenger had explained how he missed the bus the day before.

From my third-floor vantage point across Alexander Street, I watch the fruit market every morning. Every morning except Sundays that is. But they’re not open Sundays anyhow. It’s the same procedure each morning:

  1. Open at 8:35 AM.
  2. Roll out the two large fruit stands from inside the store to the sidewalk.
  3. Water down the fruits with a little orange spray gun connected to an over-sized green hose.
  4. Bring nutrition and happiness to the general public.

I’m not sure if step number three is always completely necessary, but the little Chinese woman does it religiously every morning.

Next to the fruit market is a store named “JRM Brothers”. I’m not sure what that stands for, but the little paper sign written in red marker taped to the front door reads “Mattresses and Bingo Dabbers”. I’ve never seen anyone actually buying a mattress there, just the bingo dabbers. In fact, this store hardly ever seems to be open. How large is the Bingo Dabber Community that this store can stay operational from dabber sales alone? I imagine that there is something suspicious going on in the back room, but I’m hesitant to report them to the proper authorities since the authorities themselves are most likely conducting illegal activities in their own back rooms. Does that seem fair?

From this very same window one morning, I once saw a man gunned down outside the mysterious JRM Brothers. I could only speculate that he had found out just what it was that was going on behind those opaque windows. But I don’t know this for sure.

Why do I sit at my window and watch events of no relevance to myself every morning? Is it because I yearn for the indulgence of witnessing another cold-blooded shooting? Can I be that compassionless? I’m aware that even I am capable of surprising myself.

Walking up the sidewalk in front of these stores is a man I’ve affectionately referred to as “Creepy Pete.” I’ve grown to be unaffected emotionally by the general public, especially by those in my own neighborhood, but this fellow creeps me out. Every morning he walks up the sidewalk to the corner, turns around, and proceeds to walk back to the other corner. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He appears from one corner at 8:21, follows his ping-pong pattern for twenty minutes, and then exits around the other corner at 8:42.

It’s 8:41 now. He’s almost done.

He wears the same bright blue trench coat, and grins the same creepy unexpressive smirk each morning. I may be the one who’s writing his own dictionary, but I’m talking about major psychological problems from this guy. Even Marlon won’t watch at this time of the day.

8:42. And there he goes. See you tomorrow Pete.

I see a woman at the fruit stand I’ve never seen before. Probably around thirty years old, and wearing far too less for this October morning. You know the type: Black pants that seem to be painted on, and a white, almost see-through top that leaves little to the imagination in this temperature. Even from up here.

She takes a kiwi into her hand, and rolls it between her long fingers for just a brief moment before accidentally dropping it on the ground. I see it roll off the sidewalk and land on the curb, stopping at a sewage drain. She thinks it rolled under the fruit stand, and gets on her knees to look for it. I can see the tag of her underwear sticking out from the top of her pants. I wonder why she never cut that tag off. I’m positive no one else cares what the washing instructions on her thong are.

She quickly gives up on looking for the kiwi, since the five-second rule has passed anyway. As she stands back up, she looks around guardedly to see if anybody witnessed this. No one but me. She chooses the rest of her fruit more carefully, and doesn’t drop a single one.

I see that my Monday morning taxi has pulled up out front of my building, so I put some sliced nectarine in Marlon’s dish, grab my dictionary and some resumes, and head out the door.

FIVE

benevolent /bi-nev-uh-luhnt/…adj. 1 well meaning and kindly. 2 (of an organization) charitable rather than profit-making.

– ORIGIN Old French benevolent.

I unlock the front gate, and slide it open into the wall storage unit. I walk across the darkened floor to the back of the room, and flick the switch. The florescent lights begin to glow one by one beneath their dirty plastic covers, until all of the carpets are lit up majestically. Some carpets are rolled and standing upright along the walls. Some are slung over racks. There are five or six carpets spread completely over the floor, and there’s even two more hanging from the ceiling by fishing line in a dramatic display. All of them are gaudy patterns in Indian-style designs and color.

I welcome myself to another exciting and challenging day at the mall. Or more precisely, what’s known as the Carpet Tunnel.

I’ve worked hard to gain my position as Assistant Manager at the Carpet Tunnel, second only to Mr. Harding. Of course, there’s only the two of us that work here. This guy is twenty-five years old, and insists on me calling him “Mr. Harding”. Whatever.

“What do you know about carpets?” is what Mr. Harding asked me at my job interview last June.

“I know enough to sell a carpet or two.” I answered pompously.

He looked at me with a smirk. “That’s good enough for me Jerome.”

I wanted to say, “Please, call me Mr. Krakow.” But my inner voice informed me that this would probably be the best situation for my Mondays right now, so I’d better not blow it.

In the five months that I’ve been here, I think I’ve sold three carpets. But who’s counting? All I know is that if Mr. Harding thinks he can hire some high school twerp that will do better than that, he can go right ahead. Selling three of these horrific carpets is pretty damn good by my standards.

Aside from the glamour of selling over-priced imported rugs, working at the mall on a Monday is not so bad. And aside from the other people that work at the mall, there isn’t usually too much traffic. Unless it’s “Sale Season”. But Hard-Assed Harding’s prices aren’t going to drop for any sale, so that just keeps the bargain shoppers even farther away from us, and much, much closer to The Gap.

This gives me plenty of time to work on my dictionary, which is what I’m doing right now. Sitting on probably the cheapest stool known to man, and leaning over the two-foot long sales counter, I have just enough time to jot down the word “fate” before an actual customer enters Carpet Tunnel.

The fluorescent lights flicker a little as she walks into the store. I’m hesitant to assist her, yet I find it difficult to continue writing while she’s here. She takes a look for a minute or so before noticing me, and coming to the back of the store.

“How you doing?” She asks openly.

I can hardly move, as if simply focusing on this girl is taking all my energy.

She beats me to the response, “What’s the matter, Carpet Tunnel Syndrome?”

I thought of that joke already. It’s nothing new. I manage to mutter a reply.

“Very funny.”

“I thought so. You going to sell me a carpet, or are you just going to sit there and write that book all day?” She glances down at the counter. “What’s that, a dictionary?”

“Yep.”

She stops and stares at me, searching my face up and down. I don’t know why, but I don’t even try to avoid eye contact. Her eyes are a faded blue, which I believe is the same color as mine. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my own eyes. She must be around thirty, thirty-one. She’s had that peculiar smile on her face the whole time she’s been in here. Her dark hair is pulled back into a bun. She’s wearing one of those pant suits that are popular with the businesswomen. I’ve seen them before from my apartment window. And she has a nametag with her picture on it pinned to her breast, and I can see the name “Julie.” I can’t make out what the nametag is for.

She looks at me sideways now. I feel like she’s trying to get inside my head. Or maybe out of it. She holds out a firm hand. “My name’s Julie.”

“I see your nametag.” is the best I can do for her. I keep my hands on the counter.

Another piercing glare, and she manages to get it out of me, “Jerome. My friends call me Jerry.” I think about what I just said. “…I prefer Jerome.”

“So Jerome, what can you do for me?”

“I’m sorry. But it’s not in my job description to do anything for you.”

“That’s too bad. But who’s talking about your job?” Still with that smile. How can any reasonable human keep a smile up for so long?

“Excuse me?”

“Your job is to sell carpets, right?”

“I’ve only sold three.”

“All day?” she asks inquisitively.

“All year.”

She points to one of the hanging carpets above her without even looking up.

“I’ll take that one,” she says. “So that’ll make four.”

I look up. That is one ugly carpet. She’s got no taste at all.

“You’re one hell of a salesman Jerome. I find it hard to say ‘no’ around you. It’s like you know exactly what I want.”

I turn back to her, and ask in puzzlement, “Do you really want that carpet?”

She’s right on cue, “Do you really have to ask me?”

I can’t think of the words I need to say here. Julie leans over my counter, getting a little too close for my liking. I can see right down her blouse.

“You know Jerome, I could really use someone with your flare for selling carpets.” She’s wearing a black bra.

“You need a carpet salesman?” I ask without really thinking.

“No. I need a janitor.”

What?

She turns her body away, but her head is still directed at me. “I’ll be back in five minutes Jerome. And I want to see either a carpet or a resume in your hands.” Julie walks right back out of the store. I can hear her heels clacking as she walks through the mall. I wonder whether she’s actually going to come back, or if she’s just high on something. I still hear the heels. Clack, clack, clack, clack.

I put my 2B pencil back to the page and continue:

fate…n. 1 the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as decided in advance by a supernatural power. 2 the course or unavoidable outcome of a person’s life.

– ORIGIN Latin fatum ‘that which has been spoken’.

Clack, clack, Julie’s back. I fumble under the counter, and pull out a resume. She sees me as I hold it up.

“That carpet was pretty ugly, wasn’t it?” She takes the paper from my hand, and reads it over quickly, speed-reader style.

She looks up, “A different job for every day of the week Jerome?”

“Yes.” Is all I can muster, like a guilty child cornered by his parents.

“It says here you can only work Tuesdays, but not before 1:00 PM?”

“Yes.”

“That’s lucky for you, because that’s when you’ll be working.”

“Can I start tomorrow?”

She laughs a little laugh, “Don’t be silly Jerome! There’s paper work to do and I’ll need to discuss this with my superiors. Can I call you tomorrow then?”

I jump the gun, “What is this job exactly?”

“The Museum of Applied Arts and Technology. Janitorial duties. Five o’clock to one AM. And all the solitude you need.”

All the solitude I need? That’s perfect.

“I’ll get back to you Jerome.” Julie turns to leave once more. She stops and glares at one of the carpets hanging on the front rack. “I’m surprised you even sold three of these eyesores.” Julie exits Carpet Tunnel, and the clacking of her heels quickly disappears around the corner.

I pick up my 2B pencil and continue where I left off…

SIX

bitumen /bit-yuu-muhn/…n. a black sticky substance obtained naturally or from petroleum, used for road surfacing.

– ORIGIN Latin.

The taxi takes me directly from the mall to Alexander Street, and I get out on the south side, opposite my apartment. I can see Marlon at the open window, and I pray for him to jump. I wait for a moment, staring up at him, as he stares down at me and seems to shake his head “no.” I guess not today.

To my right is JRM Brothers. They don’t appear to be open, but I stick my ear up to the door anyway. I try to sense the evil that is no doubt inside. I try to smell the freshly torn limbs, the ruthless mutilations. I wait to hear the blood-curdling screams.

Nothing.

I motion to cross the street, but I stop as I notice the kiwi that was dropped this morning, still sitting on the sewage drain. It’s now blackened with the dirt of today’s traffic. I bend down and pick it up. I peel the fuzzy skin, making a mess of my fingers. Beneath the skin, the fruit is still fresh.

I decide to take it up for Marlon. He loves fruit. Maybe then he’ll jump for me…

SEVEN

bogy…n. 1 an evil or mischievous spirit. 2 a cause of fear or alarm. 3 informal a piece of mucus in the nose.

– ORIGIN formerly a name for the Devil.

Most people look forward to their days off. They look forward to the breaks from the impossible levels of “stress” and “trauma” in their daily lives. This, of course, is a wasted effort. Since the majority of reported cases of stress are ultimately nothing more than imagined and somewhat twisted desires to obtain pity. But pity cannot be tossed around like old baseballs of sorrow waiting to be caught in the weathered mitts of compassion. If you want real pity, you’ve got to really work for it. And I’ll tell you now; you’re never going to find it from me.

I set up my camera on this Tuesday morning at the same time and in the same spot as every other Tuesday morning. I focus the lens for a clear shot of the fruit stands. I set the aperture to reduce the morning light shining in through the cracks of the city. I check the clock that sits on the corner of 46th and Alexander. 8:32 AM. One more minute, and I can start my day. Every Tuesday at 8:33 AM for eleven years I’ve taken a picture of this same spot of real estate. The fruit market used to open at 8:00. It’s been there the longest, but everything else has changed over the years. Yet it’s never really changed at all. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Isn’t that what the kids say?

Here comes Creepy Pete. Watch the clock now…8:33. Click.

In a pile of albums, I have roughly six hundred Tuesday morning pictures. All with the same camera. In about twelve of those pictures, I’ve had a semi trailer drive by just as I snapped the photo, blocking pretty much everything. All I get is the meats and dairy product logos on the side of the trailers. But all the rest of my shots show a clear and vivid progression of the environment around me. The environment is progressive, not the society.

Yet today, for the first time, I feel something from somewhere deep inside me that tells me of a change in society. Not a physical change, but a mental one. From my point of view. My mind doesn’t even acknowledge this thought until about an hour later, but it was there. And I’m not sure what I should make of it.

I leave some fresh papaya in a dish for Marlon, and head outside with my camera. On Tuesdays I reluctantly hike around the city, taking pictures of anything that catches my eye. I don’t consider myself an artist, more of a journalist. I catalogue humanity, and usually find it lacking in most areas. Social behavior. Compassion. And general intelligence is what I look for. Much too often I’m disappointed by what I find, so I just snap a picture of an old building or something. But I feel strangely compelled to watch the society I abhor.

Today I find myself on the steps of the Museum of Applied Arts and Technology. I don’t even realize where I am in relation to the events that transpired yesterday. At least, not yet.

The fountain at the bottom of the steps is massive. And there are more than enough obnoxious tourists and local inhabitants to accommodate its’ size. I hate being around this amount of people, but I tell myself it’s for research purposes. And I think my mind believes me. I force my way through the screaming infants, the skateboarding punks that should no doubt be in school, and the foreigners I can’t even understand, but somehow their conversations annoy me just the same. I try to ignore the guy with the spiked hair and camouflage pants doing pushups on the steps to my left. He has a goatee so big that it couldn’t possibly have been trimmed for a year.

I try to find something worth taking a picture of. I spot a family at the bottom of the steps below me. The daughter, probably around five years old, is knee-deep in the fountain. She is wearing a little pink dress. She playfully gathers some water from the fountain and cups her hands together. She then runs back to her parents, careful not to spill any of the precious liquid she’s collected. But a careful five-year-old is still like a bull in a china shop. Her childish lack of coordination inevitably spills most of the water. She runs up to her father and flings her hands open in surprise, hoping to soak him. But by this point, there is only a few drops that splash onto his face. This is when I take the picture. Click.

The man with the spiked hair to my left walks closer to me. From the inside pocket of his coat, he pulls out a little orange bottle. He holds it before me as he speaks.

“Dude, can you watch my hot sauce for me?”

He places the bottle on the step beside me. Sure enough, it’s a bottle of “Colon Smasher Hot Sauce”. I awkwardly say “sure,” and all of a sudden, the guy just takes off like a mongoose. He runs down the steps, jumping clear over the last five or six. He hits the ground running, splashing through the fountain, and right out of sight. He doesn’t seem to be coming back. What the hell was that all about? This is why I don’t like coming out on my days off. Everybody’s fucked up. Plain and simple.

I glance at the bottle, and I can see that it’s empty. I hold my camera up, and take a picture of the orange-stained bottle of Colon Smasher hot sauce in my hand. Click.

I bring my camera back down, and I notice Julie is now standing directly in front of me. She’s wearing a skirt today. It’s short enough to see most of her legs.

“You know this bottle Jerome?” she asks smiling.

“I’m just watching it for somebody.”

“Uh huh. I can leave you two alone if you need some quiet time.” She giggles more to herself than towards me.

I don’t have time for leisurely conversation. I come right out with it, “So how about that job? Do I start next week?”

“Nothing yet, you Go-Getter.” She gives me a punch in the arm. I don’t like punches in the arm. She sits down on the step beside me as she speaks. “Mind if I have a seat?”

“And if I did?”

“Too bad Jerry.”

“It’s Jerome.”

Julie jumps up onto her feet, and does her best impression of a ballerina on the steps in front of me. She gestures to the camera in my hands, “So what’s the deal Jerome? You going to take a picture of me now?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“That’s why you brought the camera, isn’t it?” She pouts her lips as she speaks, in an effort to imitate a supermodel. I’m not impressed by her pretentiousness. She leans in close to me, and gives my camera a sultry kiss on the lens.

I speak up now, a little more assertively, “I need to know about that job Julie.”

“You will know about it. Just not right now.” She runs childishly up the steps behind me. I don’t even turn my head to follow her.

It’s apparent to me that my temperature is rising, “When will that be then? I don’t have time for this.”

I’m taken by surprise as Julie pops over me from behind. Her face is upside down to mine. She’s a little too close for my liking.

“Are you married Jerome?” And a little too upfront.

“What? No!”

“So what are you doing tonight?”

I stand up now. “Listen Julie. I am NOT married. And I do NOT want to see you tonight. But I AM free on Tuesday to start that job you offered me. That’s all I need from you. That’s it.”

“No it’s not. You need a picture of me too.” She jumps in front of me again, and playfully puts a finger to her lips, smiling more than ever before. She’s like a child that just won’t stop. And I don’t know what to do about her. There’s nothing I can do to make her go away. I can’t snap my fingers or click my heels together. I can’t simply wish for her to disappear. I only have one option.

“You want a picture?” I hold up the camera, “Fine.”

“All right then!” Julie prepares herself faster than I thought she could. I see her through the lipstick on the camera lens. If a smile can be both childish and seductive at the same time, that’s what she gives me now. Click.

“There you go. Now please leave me be until you know about the job. I need this Julie. I need Tuesdays.”

“You need a day off sweetie.”

“What did you – – That’s completely out of line! How can you say that?”

“I say what I know. And I know I’ll get back to you.” She turns back up the steps of the museum. Again, I don’t turn around to follow her. Clack, clack. I can still hear her breathing behind me.

And then suddenly, nothing.

I turn. And she’s gone. She’s gone back into the museum.

I wipe the lipstick from the lens and put my camera into its’ case. I leave the museum, the hot sauce, the fountain, and all of these sorry people behind me.

Then I turn for one more look at the family I saw earlier. The girl is curled up in her father’s arms as they pick up their belongings to leave.

EIGHT

careen /kuh-reen/…v. 1 (with reference to a ship) tilt to one side. 2 move in an uncontrolled way; career.

– ORIGIN Latin carina ‘a keel’.

I tear off the October page of my calendar. It’s about time too. I’ve got the great States of America calendar this year, and I was really getting sick of looking at this month’s selection. Wisconsin, the Badger State. With a great big picture of a dairy farm. To tell you the truth, Wisconsin makes me sick. Orson Welles was from Wisconsin. So was Harry Houdini. And where are they now? Both just seemed to disappear.

I take October into my office, and pin it right next to September. I open the closet and take out my saxophone case. I don’t play it as much as I’d like anymore, usually just on Wednesday nights now. I used to play it here, but my neighbor upstairs finally convinced me that it was in my best interests not to do so anymore. She calls the cops crying murder, and they smash my front door to pieces because I couldn’t hear them knocking. And I was the one that had to pay for the new door and deadbolt lock.

I’m gonna call the cops myself one of these days if she keeps me up late anymore. That’ll show the Bed-Thumper.

Apartment life has always been a problem for me. The guy who lived upstairs before Bed-Thumper was one of those loud bathroom guys. I could hear him taking a leak from anywhere in my apartment. Even with the window open and daytime traffic outside. You can imagine what it was like in the dead of the night. That’s when I took up the saxophone.

When I was younger I had a roommate that killed himself. I got over it pretty easily, but the biggest problem I had was that he left the sink full of dirty dishes before he slit his throat in the bathtub. This guy was struggling to die for about an hour after he did it. He was too weak to cut anything else, and just ended up losing consciousness for a while before he actually died. Everyone knows that the best part of your body to slice up for a suicide attempt is the wrists. And cutting two wrists cuts the struggling time in half.  My roommate didn’t even leave a suicide note or anything behind. He just went ahead and did it. For the record, I would recommend a note. Or at least some bloody scribbles on the wall. Just some kind of written message to leave behind is greatly appreciated.

As I slip my dirtiest overalls over top of my existing clothing, I take another look outside my window. JRM Brothers is still closed. You’d swear they were out of business and abandoned if it wasn’t for the nagging feeling of despair behind those windows. It’s 8:21 AM, and Creepy Pete is right on schedule. The fruit market still reads “Open at 8:30”, but I don’t have the time today to see what transpires in the hectic world of fruit. I’ve got to get to work. After I double check that the window is all the way open, I leave a dish of sliced mango for Marlon, and I make just enough time for a quick pep talk for the hairless little guy.

“Jump Marlon. Jump.”

He doesn’t even pay attention to what I’m saying, and simply sinks his claws into the fruit.

So with my paint-covered overalls on, and saxophone case in hand, I head out Wednesday morning for work.

The subways are fairly empty today. I don’t know if it’s a holiday or if there’s some other reason. Usually I’m pretty much on top of things like that. The first of November isn’t a holiday, is it? I don’t think so. Unless it’s something new of course. With every new calendar I get, I can barely seem to count all of the new holidays I find on one hand.

I don’t recall January second’s “Day After New Year’s Day” holiday. That’s in New Zealand. Or March eighth’s “International Women’s Day” holiday. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do on that day. Show respect and adoration for women? As far as I knew, society was supposed to do that every day of the year. It’s called equal rights. August fifth is Australia’s Northern Territory “Picnic Day.” Picnic Day? How about August twenty-sixth? That’s the UK’s “Bank Holiday,” which takes place everywhere in the UK except Scotland. What’s wrong with the Scottish?

And then there are the Japanese holidays; Coming of Age Day. National Foundation Day. Greenery Day. Constitution Memorial Day. Children’s Day. Marine Day. Culture Day. Labor Thanksgiving Day. And the Emperor’s Birthday. I thought these guys were the hardest-working country in the world?

I’m relatively sure I’m not in Japan, so I really have no explanation as to why there’s actually legroom on the subway today. Mark it down as just good timing I guess.

There may be a peculiar shortage of passengers this morning, but the crazy-to-normal ratio is still about the same. For every one sane rider, there’s about three of the scrambled egg variety. I’m talking about the short bus, extra-long-sleeved jackets, smashing their heads into the concrete floor types. The real fucked up. I don’t think these folks are even at all capable of surviving up on the surface world. That’s why there’s so many of them down here. Sunlight turns them into spiders or something.

Just take a look in front of me right now, and you’ll see the guy with one hand under his ass, and the other shoved almost entirely in his mouth. He tries to say something, probably quoting something along the lines of the hottest stock market trends, but all that comes out is mumbling accompanied by drool and mucus.

Or how about the man with the traveling puppet show? Of course, he’s the only one that actually sees these puppets, but we all hear them. It’s amazing how he can remember all of the different ranges of roles and voices for the epic musical tale he performs. Oh that’s right, he can’t remember.

There’s the woman who looks remarkably like a sturgeon. She’s not actually doing anything that one might deem “crazy”; she’s sitting quietly by herself, hands folded neatly in her lap. But she looks like a fucking fish. No lie.

And of course, there’s “The End of the World is Nigh Guy.” We’re all trying to just ignore him and wave him through to the next car, but sitting where I am right now, seeing everything that I’m seeing, I start to think this is the one guy who’s got it all together. I’d shake his hand if I weren’t terrified of coming within five feet of the guy. No, he’s not glowing with the light of God. That’s just toxic waste.

The train comes to my stop. I take out some change from my wallet, and toss it into the “puppeteer’s” hat on my way out. You know, I didn’t even realize I did that until the subway takes off again. I wonder what came over me?

I head up the urine-stained staircase to the smoggy surface world. And there’s some secret switch inside my head that is flicked, making me think today will be all right. And it scares me just a little…

NINE

casuistry /kazh-oo-iss-tri/…n. the use of clever but false reasoning.

– ORIGIN Latin casus ‘fall, chance’.

I make a long brush stroke from the ceiling right down to the floor. I paint up from the floor to the ceiling. And back down again, leaving a trail of sea-foam green that I’m barely even able to look at with both eyes. It’s a truly horrific color, and much more so when you’ve seen it all day long.

It’s three-thirty four in the afternoon. Another hour and a half to go.

I’m on the twenty-third floor of the Preston Wisler building. Mr. Wisler himself has hired a crew of painters to repaint the inside walls of his entire fifty-six story office tower. He owns every single floor of this building, and all of the souls inside of it. He’s the fourth richest man in the city, and originally from Corpus Christi Texas. The Lone Star State. Janis Joplin was from Texas.

Preston Wisler has built his empire entirely from other people’s decisions. He is incapable of making any sort of reasonable judgment by himself. The man is a buffoon. And his empire is a veritable monkey circus, just waiting to explode from the inside out.

But he pays me pretty good. Mr. Wisler has hired us to repaint the entire building sea-foam green. The ENTIRE building. The boardrooms, the bathrooms, the elevators, and the janitor’s closet. Even the parking garage. And in every room, we’re painting the floorboards, the electrical outlets, and the ceiling fans. He wants the whole building to have a “unified” feeling. He considers himself something of an artist, and thinks that this chosen color scheme is perfect. And unfortunately, nobody is in the position to tell him it’s not.

There are four teams of three painters. Each team takes one floor at a time until it’s done. Spreading the Sea-Foam Plague up each floor, from the bottom to the top.

I was lucky enough to end up with the audacious duo known as Pascal and Monty. Straight from the mental hospital, to Painting Union Local #34101, and into your home. I’m usually able to avoid them during the day; they paint from one side of the floor, and I paint from the other. But there’s just one room left on the twenty-third floor, and we’re all here together.

These standouts of society are apparently both from a quaint little place known as Big Lick Tennessee. That’s the Volunteer State for those of you keeping track. And did you know Davy Crockett was from Tennessee? “The King of the Wild Frontier” I think the kids called him.

Pascal tells me that he’s an ex-con, busted for various money laundering operations involving grade schools and ice cream shops. Not exactly the kind of information you want to be spreading around just anywhere. But he doesn’t seem as though he’d know any better, so I actually believe him. Pascal also had both of his thumbs severed in a prison riot, and as a result, his big toes were surgically removed and grafted onto his hands. And he doesn’t exactly have what the kids call “quiet toes”. Those mothers are huge. It’s hard not to stare at them, and it’s amusing to see him try to use the paintbrush. His balance is also a little off, due to his missing toes, but as long as he doesn’t go too high up that ladder, he seems to hang in there.

All of this sea-foam green is giving me a headache.

Monty is a piece of work. The big ox used to play minor league hockey for a team known as the Big Lick Steel Zambonis. He tells stories about his hockey exploits and about his chance at making the pros. But his sixth grade education seemed to hold him back from making it big. Plus, I’m assuming he couldn’t skate either. The guy’s as big as an Indian Elephant on steroids, and about as nimble too. I’m not sure if anybody from his hockey league ever made it big though. The Carson City Ice Possums, the Albuquerque Sperm Whales, the Milwaukee Hockey, and the Philadelphia Fighting Amish don’t exactly sound like professional organizations bursting with raw talent.

He has the irritating ability to just blurt things out. Thoughts he has that really have no relation at all to what’s going on around him. I’d like to believe that he was hit in the head with one too many hockey pucks, but that would be giving him too much credit.

Monty also has some major size-complex issues. Everything he uses, eats, or owns has to be the biggest he can find. He always super-sizes his extra value meals. And he drives a friggin’ monster truck to work. Even painting this office building for example; it might all be just one color, but he still refuses to use anything smaller than the broom-sized paintbrush. It doesn’t leave much for finesse, but we just let him paint the big walls.

Another hour, and I’m out of here.

Pascal and Monty have been discussing the finer points of professional wrestling for the last twenty minutes. They really do get on my nerves, but as long as they just leave me the hell alone, I’ll put up with them.

And then Pascal turns to me. Damn.

“So if you don’t watch wrestling on TV,” he asks, “what do you watch?”

“I don’t have a television set.” I say, not stopping what I’m doing for a second.

They cannot comprehend what it is they’ve just heard. It’s almost as if they’d have a better chance trying to understand the concept of infinity.

Monty ponders this for a second, “How do you watch wrestling then?”

“I’ve found a way to live my life without wrestling. It’s really not that hard.”

The two of them turn to one another and shrug their shoulders.

Pascal carefully climbs up his ladder, his “thumbs” trying their best to hold onto the ladder and the can of paint at the same time. He applies a couple strokes to the ceiling, before another brilliant question ceases all motor functions.

He turns back down to me, “What was your name again?”

“Jerome.”

“That’s right. So what do you do for fun Jerome?” he asks inquisitively.

“I’m a writer.”

Monty is quick to respond. “Are you a sports writer?” he asks with a sense of hope.

“No.”

His shoulders sink back down.

It’s Pascal’s turn again. “Is that why you only work here one day a week?”

“It’s something like that.” I tell him.

“Are you married?”

“No. I have a cat.”

“What’s his name?”

“Marlon.”

“Like the fish?”

“No.”

Pascal is about to say something else, but Monty beats him to it, “You know, one time I buried my best friend’s yellow Pontiac in his backyard while he was asleep. Buried the whole fucking thing.”

Pascal pays no attention to him, and asks me another question, “So what does your girlfriend do Jerome?”

Now, I consider myself a fairly attentive person, and I am especially not one to lie about anything. So you can imagine how surprised I found myself when I answered his insignificant question the way I did.

“She works at a museum.” is what I casually say. Like it was no big deal.

But I don’t have a girlfriend. And the first person I could think of that actually worked at a museum was Julie. Julie? She’s not my girlfriend. I haven’t even had a girlfriend for longer than I can recall. I can remember the last girl I ever slept with, but I don’t remember her name.

This is about the point where Monty starts whistling “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, which is enough to divert Pascal’s attention away from me, and put him back to work. I, on the other hand, just leave the room.

I open the sea-foam green door to the sea-foam green bathroom, and turn on the sea-foam green tap. I half expect the water to be sea-foam green too, and I’m relieved when I discover it isn’t.

I try to imagine Julie standing before me in the mirror, so I can ask her about that job again. But all I see is myself. And my faded blue eyes. I’m sure these eyes were once bright, but I really can’t recall. I don’t appear to be even half as tired as I feel.

TEN

charade /shuh-rahd/…n. 1 an absurd pretence. 2 (charades) a game of guessing a word or phrase from written or acted clues.

– ORIGIN Provencal charrado ‘conversation’.

I’ve been at the front of this lineup for about twenty-two minutes, and it still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I look behind me; I don’t even know where the line of people ends. This is a one-hour photo lab, not the premier for Star Wars. I think these people surrounding me now bother me even more than the trolls on the subway this morning. I see the man in his three-piece suit, holding his briefcase and his fancy coffee. There’s no way it’s decaffeinated. He looks at his watch nervously, as though he was waiting for the last train out of whatever personal Hell he’s built for himself.

There’s the 400 lb. woman trying to control all three of her kids at once. I’ve been listening to her crying kids for about thirty seconds, and I already feel like I’m going to snap. I remind myself that it was a good idea to never accept that job with the postal service a few years back. Or that I never took up dentistry.

My attention is diverted to the man with the seeing-eye dog, and I wonder if his eyes are really laughing under those dark glasses. Whether he really is blind or not. I knew a guy once that tried to sue a major department store’s fragrance section for spraying him with perfume. He claimed his body had an allergic reaction to the chemicals, causing him to go blind. Of course, he never had any allergic reaction. It was a worthy attempt, but he had to prove that he really was blind. So he put on some tinted glasses and threw a leash around his pet ferret, suggesting it was a “seeing-eye ferret”. He kept this up for about three weeks before the ferret escaped from the leash onto the highway, and he chased it for two miles. After the ferret was hit by a tractor-trailer, he had to explain how he made it back home on his own.

Finally, I’m waved up to the front counter by a girl who looks as though she’s fifteen years old, and has been working here for twenty. But I know she’s new here because I come to this photo lab every week and I’ve never seen her before. She just sits with a chewed-up blue pen in her mouth and glares at me, waiting for me to speak.

“I’m picking up some photos.” I say obviously.

“Name?” is the only response I get.

“Krakow.”

She turns on her swivel chair, and walks through the brown curtain to the back room. She comes out with my photos sealed in the customary protective yellow paper package.

“You Jewish?” she asks unexpectedly as she punches some secret code into the front till.

“No.”

“Do you know Tiffany Krakow?”

“No I don’t.”

She blows a big pink bubble with her gum. It pops quite unsuccessfully. “That’s too bad.” she says while trying to reel the gum back into her mouth.

“Seven-fifty.” She says holding out her hand for my money. I give her a twenty.

She takes two fives and some change and gives it to me. “Have you got a ten?” I ask.

“If I had a ten, I’d have given it to you.” She replies.

“Would you really?” I say, not really expecting an answer. I pick up my saxophone case and turn to leave.

I pet the dog gently on the head before exiting. “Please don’t do that.” Says the blind man. I give him a quick glare, and I just know he’s mimicking me under those dark glasses.

ELEVEN

cloying…adj. disgusting or sickening because excessively sweet or sentimental.

– ORIGIN Old French encloyer ‘drive a nail into’.

I walk up to 12th and Morheard and sit down on the blue bench under the larch tree. Every Wednesday around this time I sit on the same bench with my saxophone case wearing my sea-foam green-covered overalls and I flip through my newly developed pictures taken the day before.

It crosses my mind for a moment that the idea of myself doing this religiously every week for the last six or seven years may seem to others as very similar to how I perceive Creepy Pete’s 22-minute daily ritual. Am I someone else’s “Creepy Pete”? I dismiss the ridiculous idea, and open the yellow envelope of photos nonchalantly.

I see the picture of the fruit stand that I took at 8:33 AM. There’s the picture I took of the fat Italian guy inside his bistro wiping the windows with a dirty rag. The picture of the old Mansler Building, which is scheduled for demolition December 6th. The old lady waiting for her bus, supporting herself with a cane. She’s right next to the woman with the all-too-obvious boob job that doesn’t seem to have enough support. I see the little girl in her pink dress trying to soak her father. The bottle of Colon Smasher hot sauce on the museum steps. And at the bottom of the pile is the picture I took of Julie.

She smiles at me childishly from the paper in my hand. I start to really notice just how beautiful she truly is. I look into her blue eyes and begin to read something more from that smile now. It’s a genuine kind of love. I can see it on her teeth. Between the tiny wrinkles on her forehead. Along the wings of her upper lip, around her red cheeks, and all the way to her earlobes.

I shake my head for thinking of any kind of sentimental bullshit love. I gave up on that eons ago. My parents conceived and gave birth on an airplane in the name of love. That’s fucked up. My roommate slit his throat in the bathtub for love. It’s all the same shit. From birth to death. They all dream the same bogus dreams.

I shuffle through all of the pictures once more, this time removing the ones that I don’t really like and tossing them into the nearby garbage. I put the rest back into the yellow envelope.

I slide the picture of Julie under my overalls and into my pocket, not even realizing that her kiss on the camera lens didn’t show up in the photo.

TWELVE

corollary /kuh-rol-luh-ri/…n. 1 a logical proposition that follows from one already proved. 2 a direct consequence or result.

– ORIGIN Latin corollarium ‘gratuity’.

It’s nine o’clock, and I’m in the elevator of Oracle Industries Tower Four, somewhere around the fortieth floor. The elevator moves so fast you can’t actually count the floor numbers as you go by. One year ago, I quit my Monday night job with the Arctic Solutions Water Company. It was my job was to replace water coolers from buildings like this all over the city. And I needed keys to get into most of these buildings at night. I also worked Tuesdays for a locksmith, and that’s where I had copies of the keys to Tower Four made. You’d think it would be harder than that to obtain keys for the tallest building in the city, but it’s not.

The elevator comes to a stop on the fifty-eighth floor. From here, I take another elevator up to the top floor.

From the top floor, I unlock a stairwell to gain access to the roof.

Another unlocked door gets me right outside.

I needed copies of four different keys and two security cards just to get up here. But nobody asked me any questions, and nobody knows any better.

The city din is barely audible from the roof, and the wind up here is cold at any time of the day. I set my saxophone case down on one of the metal maintenance boxes, and open it up. I attach the strap, and sling it over my neck. This is the best place in the city for me to play, and the best time for it. The sound isn’t as deep up here and you don’t get that echo you need, so I wouldn’t recommend recording any albums from the rooftop of an eighty-nine story office tower. But it’s one hell of a feeling that you can’t find anywhere else. I imagine that the entire city can hear me from up here.

I come to Tower Four to play every Wednesday night. There should almost be a sign out front to advertise. The saxophone is the release that I need. I’ve tried playing at clubs, but it’s hard to get a one-man sax gig at anyplace suitable. Plus, there were the hordes of people I had to put up with.

When I’m on this roof, I don’t have to deal with city morgue security, bus drivers, hairless cats, bed-thumpers, photo lab assistants, Bob Saget, or any of the shades of shame down below.

And I don’t even feel like jumping off.

Although if I did feel like ending it all, this would be the place to do it. There’d be more left of my saxophone on the streets below than of my body. But the thought has never crossed my mind up here.

I just put the instrument to my mouth and blow. I don’t play anything specific; I usually make it up as I go. One chord here, another there. I’m not looking for a Musical Achievement Award, just a release.

Sometimes I’m up here for ten minutes. Sometimes for two hours. And I’ve never been interrupted. Until tonight.

I hear the stairwell door swing open, and I turn to look. Surely it’s one of the guards from downstairs wondering how I got through their elaborate security system. Or an electrician coming to repair some auxiliary power supply.

But the only person I see is Julie from the Museum of Applied Arts and Technology.

“Good evening Jerome.” She says as she saunters towards me. Hot air rising from her lips, and up into the evening clouds.

I want to ask how she found me, how she managed to get up here, but I’m too preoccupied with wondering whether or not I got the job for Tuesday.

“I followed you here, and the guard downstairs let me up.” The words roll off her tongue.

“The guard knew I was up here?” I inquire.

“They all know you’re here. They’ve always known. But he told me that you weren’t hurting anyone so it was all right by him.”

She moves closer now, and sits down next to my saxophone case. She runs her fingers along the cold plastic shell. The job, I wonder. Do I get the museum job?

She pauses before continuing. “I can’t give you the job Jerome.”

What?

“Not because you aren’t qualified, because you most certainly are. If ever there was someone qualified enough to operate a mop and a bucket of water it’s you. But I’m worried about the state of your mental health.”

My mental health? What’s wrong with my mental health?

Who does she think she is?

“And I care about you too much to see you suffer any more Jerome.”

I’m not suffering.

Am I?

“I don’t know how any sane person can work seven different jobs in one week.”

I try to understand what the problem could be but I can’t seem to come to a conclusion. “It’s what I have to do to stay sane.” is all I can tell her.

Julie gets up from her cold seat. She looks at me. She looks into me. I can almost feel her inside me. And I’m not sure if I like it.

“Wait a minute,” I say, thinking back to the words she just spoke, “What do you mean you ‘care about me’? You don’t even know me.”

She walks closer to me now. I can feel her warm breath as though it were my own. “How many people have you really allowed to get to know you? I’m as close as it comes, aren’t I?”

I don’t want to argue her point of view. Could I even make a case to argue it at all? She lays the palm of her right hand gently onto my chest, and tilts her head to one side compassionately.

“There’s something in here,” she says softly, “that hasn’t come out for a long time, isn’t there?”

I don’t have the words to say. Julie slowly slides her hand down my side, into the paint-stained overalls, and into my pocket. She takes out the picture of her that I put in that pocket earlier today. Like magic, she pulls a pen out of thin air, and writes something down on the photo.

“I know how to find you,” she whispers, “and when you’re ready to find me, you can start right here.” Julie hands the photo back to me. I hold it under the moonlight and read what she wrote down.

Written across her face is the name “Julie”, with an address and telephone number. I look back to Julie. She’s already moved about fifteen feet away from me, towards the stairwell door.

“I’ll see you then.” She says, and is suddenly gone just as quickly as she had first appeared.

I put the picture back in my pocket, and place my saxophone carefully back into its case. Playing any longer tonight doesn’t seem to appeal to me. I take the stairs all the way down to the lobby.

The front guard says goodnight as I exit Tower Four and head home.

THIRTEEN

crux /kruks/…n. the most important point under discussion.

– ORIGIN Latin, ‘cross’.

I’m dressed entirely in black today. I tell myself it’s because I need to do some laundry one of these days, but I can really only think of one logical reason why I chose this morbid attire; today is Merle’s funeral. You remember Merle, don’t you?

I know I’m not going to the funeral, and I haven’t thought about him at all since Saturday night, but I think of him this morning nevertheless.

Marlon is at the windowsill, contemplating his demise. Shall it be a swan dive? Or perhaps a belly flop into the concrete below? I’d give him a push myself, but I’m already running a little late this morning.

On my way out the door, I almost trip over the dish of cantaloupe I left for him.

I walk around the corner of 46th and Alexander, and down another block to Joe’s Barbershop. There’s already an old guy waiting outside for me. He’s been here before, but I don’t know who he is. He wears an old gray fedora. He’s so decrepit, I feel like telling him to “save the twelve bucks. The morgue will do it for you”. But I just nod unemotionally and open the shop. Welcome to Thursday.

Joe’s Barbershop was originally my grandfather’s. I never knew why he named it “Joe’s” though, since his name was Walter. He left it for my father in his will, but since my father died before him, grandpa’s hair clipper dream was passed on to me. Of course, cutting hair was never a great aspiration of mine.

Grandpa taught me how to cut hair when I was in high school. Arthur Vaughan Biesen and I needed money for beer and smokes, so I helped grandpa out on Saturdays. He taught me how to cut hair the old-fashioned way. He and I would regularly give our customers wet shaves, shaving their beards if they wanted. But the law says I’m not allowed to do that anymore due to the AIDS scare.

When he died, I started working at grandpa’s shop once more. That was thirteen years ago, and I’ve never worked here more than two days a week during that time. I hired another barber named Gary Sparkles. Sounds more like a car wash than a man’s name, but he was willing to work here five days a week, and has done so ever since I gave him the job. He’s a nice enough fellow, but I don’t care to associate with him any more than I do anyone else.

I’ve never written a will of my own, but when I’m out of here, I guess Gary Sparkles will get all the paperwork.

I point to the dusty leather barber’s chair, and the old guy crawls his way up into the seat.

He snickers as he removes his hat. “Just a little off the top.” he says to me, his laugh quickly turning into a wheezing cough. “That’s a joke son.” he insists as he points to his freckled bald scalp. I try my best to find the humor in it, but I’d much rather just see him leave.

This is by far my least favorite job. The necessity people find in having to drone on and on about whatever issues are currently bothering them is simply lost on me. I don’t care that your radio is on the fritz. I don’t care that they don’t make mayonnaise like they used to. And I don’t care that your mother has died.

Just shut up and read another outdated National Geographic. This will all be over soon.

And when they think they have all the answers to life? I call them the “Barber Chair Prophets”. They come strolling in here thinking they hold all of the answers to making my own life better. That’s why I just cut the hair without a word now. They can’t get into my head if I don’t give them an entrance.

Some days when the senseless small talk turns into political bullshit or psychological drivel, I imagine these people are simply laid out in the morgue. It’s much easier for me to block it out if I can convince myself they’re dead. I can see the scars from their lobotomy. I can smell the ointment that’s temporarily keeping their skin from rotting.

Merle never gave me any small talk. Merle didn’t have any petty problems that he assumed I cared about. Merle was much easier to feel pity for. Let’s face it; if one of your biggest priorities is shelling out twelve bucks to get your receding hairline trimmed, things really can’t be as terrible as you make it out to be. If you can make time in your center-of-the-universe life to come to Joe’s Barbershop, don’t expect me to give you a handful of sympathy with your change.

As I trim the ghost-white hair off the sides of his skull, the old guy speaks up again.

“Take a step back.” He says calmly.

I stop what I’m doing, and hesitantly do what he tells me. The old guy snorts a little and smiles at me in the mirror.

“No, no. Take a step back from your life. From the usual.”

“What are you saying?” I ask him.

His eyes squint, as he carefully looks into my own. “I mean you need a break, son. Look at yourself in the mirror for a moment.”

I don’t.

He continues anyway. “You’re so wound up with whatever’s on your mind, that you’re not even here.”

I don’t even want to know what he’s getting at, so I simply turn my clippers back and continue. But he’s not done yet.

“You don’t think you can fall in love, do you? I can read it in your eyes like a children’s book. Might as well have big colorful pictures too.”

I suck up his accusations and try to spit out my own. But I can’t speak. It’s like he’s got a hold on me. I can only watch the tiny white hairs drift to the brown linoleum floor below as I snip them in half.

“Don’t think of me as some Barber Chair Prophet. I’m saying anyone can love at any time they choose. And you need that love in order to live.”

I clip the hair around his ears carefully. He’s got the big sagging leathery ears of an elephant. I find the words to speak. “I’m living right now, aren’t I?”

“Is that really what you think?” He taps his finger on the wrinkled temple of his skull as I brush the lose hairs from his head. “In your mind you’re living. But you’re still missing that one key ingredient for it all to make sense.”

He rises slowly from the seat before I even tell him I’m finished. I stand still as I watch him hobble to the cash register. “How much do I owe you son?” he asks as though we didn’t just have that conversation.

“Twelve dollars.” It’s almost a crime to take the money from someone who had hardly a hair on his head in the first place.

“It’ll be ten dollars.” I insist, changing my mind.

He hands me a twenty, and I give him two fives in change from the register.

“Have you got a ten?” he asks me.

“If I did, I’d have given it to you.”

“Would you really?” the old guy ponders, with a wink and a smile.

He carefully places his fedora back on his head, and exits the shop whistling. In the pocket of my slacks, I find the picture I took of Julie with her handwriting scribbled over top. And I can’t remember when I must have put it in that pocket.

FOURTEEN

deliverance…n. the process of being rescued or set free.

Another failed brushstroke. I’ve tried my best to save what I could of this latest portrait of Arthur Vaughan Biesen tonight, but I’ve realized it’s a lost cause. Although, I find some strange sort of relief in the fact that this time my stroke only appears to be off by about 1/5 of a centimeter.

I don’t know what’s got me shaking more tonight. Whether it’s the thought of the conversation I had in the barbershop this morning, or if it’s because I’ve had “Rainy Day Women” by Bob Dylan stuck in my head for what seems like weeks now. I don’t even remember the last time I’d heard that song. Probably years ago. Strange.

I take the flawed painting from off the right of the easel, and store it in the closet with the others. That’s one hundred and twenty-four now.

Marlon is on the floor, polishing off another serving of seedless watermelon. He refuses to eat the watermelon that has the little black seeds. It’s a good thing he’s missing his tail, because some days I think I’d be tempted to yank it as hard as I could.

As I make my way to the bathroom to rinse my brushes in the sink, the phone rings. I hold on to the brushes and reach for the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Jerome? It’s me. Julie.”

Julie? How did she get my number?

“I got your number from your resume. I hope that’s okay.”

Of course it isn’t, but I’m willing to hear what she has to say. I assume that she hasn’t changed her mind about the job.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind.” she answers coyly. “I was wondering if you wanted to meet up tonight.”

Tonight? Meet up? What ever for?

“I just wanted to see you.” She insists.

I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to say. I’m an old man Julie. I need my sleep. Would that be sufficient? I need love in order to live, but I don’t see the point of it all. How about that? Or maybe I should just say nothing. Would that be so difficult? She’ll hang up thinking I’m not even here. Or she’ll imagine I had a heart attack and call an ambulance. Hmm…

Marlon has snuck up onto the windowsill, and he watches me as I struggle to find the right words. He doesn’t give me the look, but seems more worried than anything else. If a cat can worry that is.

“I guess I just need some sleep too Jerome. Goodnight.”

Julie hangs up, and I wonder what it was that I should’ve said to make her stay on the other end of the phone for a little longer.

I put the receiver back down, and continue to the bathroom to wash these brushes. As the water trickles out from the faucet, I can hear the familiar thumping sounds coming from upstairs. I roll my eyes back in my head knowing that I’m going to be up all night.

FIFTEEN

desideratum /di-zi-duh-raa-tuhm/…n. something that is needed or wanted.

– ORIGIN Latin.

As I stand in the shower this morning rubbing my eyes, I start to wonder if I actually got any sleep at all last night. I think I remember a dream of some sort. I haven’t remembered a dream for ages. But I have an image in my mind of Julie on the steps of the museum.

She is dancing to a song I’ve never heard before, and wearing the same paint-covered overalls as the ones I own. She is dancing with Arthur Vaughan Biesen, who is sixteen again with his long greasy hair. The old man from the barbershop sits next to me in the fountain with Marlon on his shoulder. Marlon has his tail back now. We are right in the middle of the fountain, but we’re not getting wet. In my head, I hear a voice reminding me that I’m still young. I don’t recognize the voice, yet I feel as though it’s Merle speaking to me from beyond the grave. At the top of the steps, I see Pascal and Monty on stepladders painting the entire museum sea-foam green.

That’s some weird shit. Yet it doesn’t feel as though I dreamed it, more like I actually lived it.

Out from the shower I head to the window. The clock outside tells me it’s 8:36 AM. Sure enough, I see that the Chinese woman is rolling out the fruit stands, and Creepy Pete has just turned around for another pass down Alexander Street. Everything is right on schedule. And to no surprise, JRM Brothers is still mysteriously closed.

Marlon looks up at me from the floor. There’s that look again.

“What’s it going to be Marlon?” I ask him. “You going to make the big leap today?” He just touches his tongue to his nose as a response. I’m guessing that means “no”.

I leave a dish-full of red grapes on the floor as I leave.

SIXTEEN

deus ex machina /day-uuss eks mak-i-nuh/…n. an unexpected event saving a seemingly hopeless situation.

– ORIGIN Latin, ‘god from the machinery’.

So my boss, Mr. Pitt, informs me that they have to make cutbacks in certain areas of the company, and that my job was close to obsolete, which made me one of the first to go.

“So you’re firing me?” I ask him directly.

“Grab your R.O.E. on the way out Krakow.” he responds, not looking up from his desk even once.

“These cutbacks,” I poke a bit more, “they don’t have anything to do with your kid, do they?” Everyone knows that Pitt was using company funds to pay for his son’s sex-change operation. But unlike his son, he’s not man enough to admit anything.

I leave Avenue Insurance with a scowl, knowing that I’m going to have to find work for Tuesdays and Fridays now. I was only employed here for three weeks, not long enough to even figure out what my job was. I filled out some papers on my first Friday. I filed papers on my second. That’s when I learned of the fraudulent money transactions. And last week I was sent home early with pay because the offices had to be unexpectedly fumigated. Some kind of roach problem I think it was.

I slam the lobby door behind me, and stomp out onto the street. Rain has just started falling, sprinkling the asphalt. And I’m stopped in my tracks. I see Julie standing in front of the pawnshop across the street. She’s waving to me, so I dash over to speak with her.

The closer I get to her however, I get the feeling that her wave means something more. It’s appears as though she’s waving hello, but it feels more like she’s saying goodbye. And yet, I don’t know why I sense this.

She’s wearing her museum jacket and a knee-length skirt today. Her museum badge still pinned to her breast.

I ask her what she’s doing here, and she tells me that she was waiting to see me.

“I wanted to apologize to you Jerome. For not saying what I should’ve said before. I’m sorry if you feel like I’ve been smothering you these past few days, but I just needed to keep seeing you. Independence has been a hard thing for me.”

Independence? What does she mean by that?

I take a gulp. “There’s some things I think I need to say to you too Julie.”

She puts her index finger to my lips. “Not here though.” Julie takes my hand, and leads me up the street. I cannot stop myself from following her, and not another word is spoken until we come to my apartment.

I unlock the door, and Marlon pounces on my left leg.  He has never seen another soul inside my apartment, but Julie’s being here doesn’t seem to shake him. I pick him up and toss him across the room.

“Is that a dog?” Julie asks.

“That’s my cat. His name’s Marlon.”

“Like the fish?”

No. Not like the fish. I find that her query amuses me, and I think back to how it only annoyed me when Pascal asked the same question.

Julie slumps onto the couch. “I’ve felt really tired lately,” she proclaims.

“Would you like a drink?” I offer, moving into the kitchen.

“No thanks. Help yourself though.”

I notice Marlon as he watches me from behind the corner. He gives me the look.

I pour myself a glass of ice water, and sit down next to Julie on the couch. I watch her for a moment as she rests her eyes. Her skirt rides up her legs, and I can see the emphasis of the black nylon material on her thigh. Tiny drops of rain dot her forehead.

I’m about to say something to her, something deep and profound, but all that comes out is “I was fired today.”

She speaks without opening her eyes. “I know.”

“Now I need to look for two new jobs.”

Julie’s eyes light up, and she moves a bit closer now. She kneels on the cushions of the couch as she faces towards me. “For someone who says they’re trying to avoid people, it sure seems the opposite Jerome.”

What are you saying?

“It’s almost as though you’re trying to surround yourself with as many people as you can.”

Marlon sits on his hind legs on the floor in front of me.

“This is exactly the point I want to make Jerome. All of those pictures you take. All of the various people you’ve met from various jobs. The painting of the best friend you could never forget.”

How does she know about the paintings? Or about Arthur Vaughan Biesen?

“You’re feeling as though you’re bound up with feelings of antipathy and resentment. But you’re really just enveloped in some unconscious admiration for society.”

Is she on to something here? I don’t want to believe it, but I can’t help but think of the points she makes. I wonder how I could sit and watch the world go by from my window every morning. How could I complain about listening to people’s problems, yet continue to cut their hair for thirteen years? And how could I have a yearning for someone that I’ve only known for five days?

As if on cue, Julie leans towards me, and puts her head on my chest. I hesitate for the longest ten seconds in history, but I manage put my arm around her shoulder.

“I wanted to tell you,” I say quietly, “that I think I love you.”

Julie responds as if she were simply reading lines from a play. “You can’t love me Jerome. That’s not the way it works.” Her words trail off, and she falls asleep right there on my couch, with my arms around her.

My eyelids start to feel heavy, and I try to fight unconsciousness for as long as I’m able to. I see Marlon turn away from me. He walks purposefully to the window, and leaps up onto the windowsill. His eyes turn back to look at me. His little yellow eyes.

And then I’m asleep.

SEVENTEEN

dirge /derj/…n. 1 lament for the dead. 2 a mournful song or piece of music.

– ORIGIN Latin dirige ‘direct’.

I show my security tag to Joe. He says good evening. I wave my most convincing wave. Joe is still cheating on his wife.

I unlock the laboratory door, and flick the light on as I enter. The closet door creaks open like in some cheesy horror movie. I take my white lab coat from the closet, and put it on. I slide a drawer open, and take out a new pair of rubber gloves. I peel them over my hands, and tug at the fingers until they snap into place.

There’s a body laid out on the table for me, fresh from his autopsy an hour ago.

I check his toe tag. “Findley, G.; Herniated Abdomen, Result of Gun Shot Wound.”

So G. Findley, just what were you up to last night? Possibly at JRM Brothers for some illicit late night activities? I start to wonder where his body was found. In a dumpster? No. The body hasn’t been cleaned yet, and he doesn’t smell like garbage. In the East River? No signs of any contact with water in the last twenty-four hours. He was probably just left in a heap on the floor where he landed. In any case, G. Findley’s body has lost so much blood that it’s far more pale than most of the other bodies I get the pleasure of meeting. And a lot colder too. I can feel it from a distance.

I woke up around 11:00 PM last night to the sound of a gunshot fired from somewhere in my neighborhood. I assumed it came from the JRM Brothers. I got up from the couch, and walked over to the window to take a look. Nothing out of the ordinary down there. Although, I swear that I could see a bingo dabber on the sidewalk under the streetlight. Before I could come to any conclusions however, I felt compelled to turn back around.

And Julie wasn’t on the couch.

I scratched my head, and took a peek in my bedroom to discern whether or not she crawled into my bed during the time I was sleeping. She’s wasn’t in there either. My front door was still locked from the inside, so she couldn’t have left out the door, could she?

I turned back to the open window and I thought, “Where’s Marlon?” He wasn’t anywhere in the apartment either. Did he finally make the great leap out the window? I double-checked the sidewalk below me for any trace. Nothing.

The picture of Julie was sitting on the kitchen counter. I dialed the number written on the photo, but I only heard ringing on the other end. I listened until it rang nine times. There was no answer.

I tried it again. Nine rings. Nothing.

I waited all afternoon for any word from Julie or Marlon, but I didn’t hear a thing. Before I left for the morgue, I put a dish of tangerine slices on the floor. Just in case.

I doubt G. Findley can help me find the answers I need. I reach for some soap, and start to clean him up. The gunshot wound came close to piercing his heart, but G. Findley got lucky with a ruptured abdomen instead.

I think back to a week ago. This has got to be the longest week of my life. I think of Merle, and how he was probably the most cooperative corpse I ever had. G. Findley is going to be a problem. I just know it.

I’ve never known my mind to play tricks on me, but I could swear I hear a light tapping sound coming from the wall. I dismiss it as a case of simply not getting enough sleep last night. Disappearing women and cats can have that effect on a person. I take a toothbrush to G. Findley’s fingernails.

The tapping gets louder now, and it sounds as if it’s coming from the storage wall. From behind the drawers of bodies. The giant vending machine of corpses. I put G. Findley’s hand down on the table, and move cautiously to the wall.

The tapping turns into a loud slamming sound. Like a violent kicking against metal. It’s definitely coming from one of the drawers. I run my finger along them all until I can tell which one. The whole wall unit is vibrating with the force of the impacts, and they echo loudly in the lab. My hand comes to a drawer labeled “empty”, and the banging suddenly stops. This is where I put Merle last week.

I put the proper key into the lock, and turn. The drawer slides out quickly on its’ own. And I am just a little surprised to see Merle get up under his own power.

“Whew! Does it ever stink in there!” he shouts, as he springs to his feet.

What am I seeing here? The deceased body of Merle is animated and standing naked before me in the morgue. He scratches his head, and begins to pick at the stitches and scabs he discovers there.

“How long have I been asleep?” he asks me coolly.

I hesitate to answer, apprehensive whether I have truly lost my mind or not. “You were supposed to be taken out on Tuesday. Your funeral was on Thursday.”

“My funeral? You talk like I’m dead or something.” He looks at me with a worried expression. I fear he doesn’t realize the extent of his condition.

“I’m not dead, am I?” He nervously searches his naked body up and down.

But then he laughs a prankster kind of laugh, pointing childishly at me. “Oh, I got you good, didn’t I Jerry?”

I have no idea what the hell is happening here.

“Come on! It’s me here. Your buddy Merle!”

I try to subconsciously kick myself back awake, for I know I must be dreaming this. But there’ll be no waking up tonight.

Merle hops up onto the table and sits next to G. Findley. He takes a good look at the lifeless corpse next to him and sticks his tongue out in disgust of the gunshot wound. His tongue is a yellowish color, due to the allergic infection. “I guess it could be worse, huh?” Merle sticks his finger into the open wound. It makes an unpleasant squishy sound as he moves it up and down. In and out.

I ask him what he’s doing here. And if I’m losing my mind.

He turns to me with a more serious look. “I needed to talk to you Jerry, but your schedule doesn’t accommodate very easily.” He doesn’t bother answering my second question, but I don’t know if I even expected him to.

We stare at each other in silence for a moment. I notice his right eye isn’t moving. It’s just stuck looking off to the side. Probably the result of a pinched nerve during his autopsy. A trail of drool forms at the corner of his mouth too.

I sit down on a chair across the room from him, and try to collect my thoughts. “What did you want to talk about then?” I ask him.

“I just wanted to know why you never made it to the funeral buddy.” He says this with a smile that appears out of thin air. He laughs a little. And as he does so, some urine involuntarily squirts out from his penis about two feet. He pays no attention to it.

“I’m just fucking with you Jerry! Lighten up a little.” His left arm starts twitching

now, probably another nerve problem. Looking at him it’s easy to think he’s falling apart, but he’s already dead.

“Why don’t you tell me about her?” he asks as he whips out the picture I took of Julie.

“How did you get that?” I ask, searching my pocket for it, but finding nothing.

“Pretty quick for a dead guy, huh?” he snickers. “So what’s the deal?”

I start to explain to Merle the details of what’s happened to me over the last week. How I met Julie. How I’ve had these feelings about her that I couldn’t explain. And how she disappeared last night after I told her I loved her. I tell him about every detail since the last time I saw him. I even mention the fish-lady on the subway. I don’t leave out a thing.

“Crazy shit happens to everyone Jerry,” he starts, “But that’s pretty fucked up, even from my point of view.”

He gets up off the table, leaking some more fluids from the physical exertion. He walks over to me, and I start to get used to the fact that I’m having a conversation with a dead man. I even notice that he doesn’t really smell all that bad.

“What you’ve got to do is sift through all of that shit, toss out everything that’s of no consequence, and hold on to what’s important. You’ve got to figure out what’s real, what’s false, and what can help you move forward.”

He talks to me like I wished my father had talked to me when I was a boy. And I realize that’s the root of my problems. I just needed a little guidance.

“Because it’s all about moving forward Jerome. Even in death.”

Merle hands me the picture of Julie. I look into her eyes, and feel as though the answer is just a heartbeat away.

I look back up to Merle, and I want to hug him. I want to thank this dead man for his inspiration.

But he’s gone. The drawer that he came out of is locked tight. Like he was never here at all. I hear his voice in my head now, reminding me that I’m still young.

I check the clock. It’s four in the morning. Time to get out of here.

EIGHTEEN

ego /ee-goh/…n. 1 a person’s sense of self-esteem. 2 the part of the mind that is responsible for the interpretation of reality and the sense of self.

-ORIGIN Latin, ‘I’.

I’m taking the 330 Ferguson through the city once more. It’s 5:12 AM. The city streets are littered with beer bottles, paper, and drunken bodies that didn’t make it home from some wild party last night. A green haze seems to envelop the city this morning.

Everything Merle said to me keeps running through my head like a stampede.  “You’ve got to figure out what’s real, what’s false, and what can help you move forward. Because it’s all about moving forward. Even in death.”

I try to make sense of what he said, while at the same time, trying to block out the image of him pissing on the floor.

Should I believe any of what happened in the morgue tonight? Should I pay heed to his words of wisdom, or try to forget the whole thing? Am I crazy to be talking to dead people? They do it in the movies all the time. Or so I’ve heard.

I should’ve asked Merle if he really was from Nebraska.

Up ahead, I see a woman waiting at the bus stop. I pull over, and let her on. She drops some change into the slot, but I don’t even count it to make sure it’s the right amount. She smiles at me nicely, and quietly sits behind me.

I close the doors, and head off again. Another twenty minutes and I’ll be in Suburbia. Fucking Suburbia. Just the thought of it almost makes me want to hit another dog. I said almost.

The woman behind me taps my shoulder. Excuse me.

Yes?

“Did you drop this?” she asks, holding up the photo of Julie. I wonder how I manage to keep misplacing that picture.

I thank her for finding it as politely as I can at this time of day.

“What’s the address for?” She asks me inquisitively as she looks at the photograph. Would she care if I told her?

“It’s Julie’s address.”

“Who?”

“Julie. The girl in the photo.” I state as bluntly as possible.

This woman takes another look at the picture, examining it much more closely. “Oh, right” she says. “The girl. Of course.” She hands the picture to me, and I take a hold of it.

There is a silence between us that seems a little too awkward for complete strangers to have.

“Are you going to visit her?”

Visit her? Right now? “I’m working.” I say.

“You love her, don’t you?”

I have no answer for this woman. Maybe it’s because I’m not entirely sure what my answer should be. But an obligation to say something to her strikes me.

“She disappeared the other night, and I have no idea where she went.” I remember turning back to the couch, and missing her instantly. “My cat’s gone too.”

“Your cat? That’s too bad. I lost a cat once.”

“He jumped out my window.”

Her eyes bulge for an instant. Out the window? “Cats always land on their feet. And I heard somewhere that they always come back to where they came from.”

“Did yours ever come back?” I ask her, trying to sound concerned.

“No.”

“Do you think women can come back like cats?”

She thinks about my question for a moment. “If you believe in her she will. Or you may have to find her yourself. Women are not that predictable.”

She has a point there. I think of every time I ever spoke with Julie. “I’ve never met anyone who was so unpredictable.”

The woman smiles at me as she points up ahead through the windshield of the bus. “That’s my stop up there.” I oblige, and pull over to the right. She rises from her seat and walks to the door of the bus. She turns back to me with one more gracious smile.

“The thing about surprises is that you never know when the next one will happen.” She steps down, and is standing outside. She motions to the photo I hold in my hand. “Say hello for me when you find who it is you’re looking for.”

And then she walks off. Between the edge of the city and Suburbia.

Twelve minutes later, I lose mind my mind. Seriously. I think of all the words I’d heard the last couple of days.

“You’re still missing that one key ingredient for it all to make sense.”

“You need love in order to live.”

“You’ve got to figure out what’s real, what’s false, and what can help you move forward. Because it’s all about moving forward.”

“If you believe in her she’ll come back. Or you may have to find her yourself.”

Images of Julie flood all of my senses at once. It’s almost too much to handle. I look at her picture. I remember calling her, but she wasn’t home. I read her handwriting on the photograph. Her address. It’s right there in front of me. It’s been there all along. The woman on the bus asked me if I was going to visit Julie. But I never thought I actually could. Until now.

I grab hold of the steering wheel as tight as I can, and take the bus right off the road. Right off the 330 Ferguson route. I blow through an empty parking lot, speed by a construction zone, and cruise right though a playground, kicking up grass and dirt behind me in a spray of green and brown. I’m unstoppable behind this wheel. Merle is on the bus with me now, laughing his naked ass off. And reminding me that I’m still young. I imagine that we’re driving straight through rows of heritage buildings, destroying everything in my path. A trail of fire blows out the back of the bus now, as if it were a jet plane. We drive across the front lawns and backyards of Suburbia, smashing through mailboxes, white picket fences, and tree houses with only one destination in mind. Merle is naked on the roof of the bus, and he’s screaming his bloody lungs out. Police have set up a barricade. The SWAT team’s arrived. The army is en route. And it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got one thing on my mind now that I’ve never known in my entire life. It’s love. I’m doing this for love!

And here I am.

I pull the bus over. Merle is gone again, so I get out on my own to investigate. I step foot onto the soil of Suburbia for one reason alone; love.

I let the black air of Suburbia touch my skin, because I think it will be worth it. But things here are not as they are supposed to be.

The address is here all right, but that’s all it is. Just an address. An empty lot.  And it looks as though it’s been empty for years.

I take the photo from my pocket once again, to double-check. And I cannot believe what I see. It’s the same picture that I’ve carried around with me for days now, but where there was once a beautiful picture of Julie posing in front of the fountain at the museum, all it is now is simply a picture of the fountain. Julie is gone.

The writing is still there, but it’s not her handwriting anymore. No, now I can see that it is my own handwriting, scribbled messily on the paper.

“You’ve got to figure out what’s real, and what’s false.”

“The thing about surprises is that you never know when the next one will happen.”

The silence out here is almost unbearable. The only sound I can hear is the faint voices crackling over the bus radio, wondering where the 330 Ferguson has gone. And I have no idea.

NINETEEN

extrapolate /ik-strap-uh-layt/…v. use (a fact valid for one situation) to make conclusions about a different or wider situation.

– ORIGIN from EXTRA- + INTERPOLATE.

So now I need to look for a new Sunday job too. Stunts like that don’t go over too well. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother. What’s the point? Merle would tell me that it’s all about moving forward.

I believed him for about ten seconds, but now I’m beginning to wonder if moving forward is such a great idea. You miss out on a lot of things if all you have is forward motion. You need to give yourself time to look back on what you’ve done. Perhaps there’s some sort of happy medium that we all need to find. A healthy helping of forward progression with a little slice of hindsight.

I come home, almost hoping that Marlon will scratch up my leg. But that same dish of tangerine slices is still there. A day and a half later. I throw the fruit away, and take a look out the front window. The fruit market is closed. It’s way too late now for Creepy Pete’s scheduled freak show. And big surprise, JRM Brothers is still sealed up from society. Even the clock on 46th and Alexander has stopped. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that clock stop. Life outside my own existence has ceased to go on. And I try to blame myself for it.

I wonder if Julie was ever real at all, or if she was merely a figment of my worn-out imagination. For that matter, maybe everything I’ve ever known was only in my head. Arthur Vaughan Biesen? I have a painted portrait of my supposed friend from high school, but no actual proof of his existence beyond that. Was there ever a Joe’s Barbershop? Maybe I just took a pair of scissors into a back alley somewhere and cut up cardboard boxes all day. It’s possible. Perhaps there’s no such thing as the Preston Wisler building. Maybe Pascal and Monty never existed either. How do I know for sure? I don’t. There may not even be an actual color called sea-foam green. It sounds made up to me.

Joe the security guard. The Gas-Guzzling Goth kids. Martha Stewart. Bob Saget. Creepy Pete. The Bed-Thumper. Fish Lady. The seeing-eye ferret. Gary Sparkles. The Barber Chair Prophet. Marlon the hairless cat. Merle the snake charmer from Nebraska. Maybe they’re all just made up.

Maybe even Nebraska itself is made up. I wouldn’t rule it out. I could be that crazy.

So what does one do when they believe their entire existence has been a sham? What could one even possibly consider doing, besides just waiting for the sand to run out?

But I still believe there’s something more. A healthy helping of forward progression with a little slice of hindsight. Could that truly be the answer? Is it possible that I’ve just solved the World’s problems? Did I have to wait until I lost hope in all that there is before I could realize what should have been done all along?

And as soon as I figure it all out, as soon as that moment hits me that I’ve reached my plateau of greatness, it all comes crumbling back down.

There’s a scratch at my door. My first thought is that it’s Merle, possibly showing up for game of charades or something. I walk to the door and open it without a fear in the world. For what is there to be afraid of, when nothing is real?

This is when I realize how wrong I was. Marlon pounces on me, clawing at my leg, as if making up for lost time. I have to admit, I was glad to see the little hairless bastard.

And I was also glad to see who else was standing at my door. It was the woman from the bus. The same gracious woman I spoke with this morning. Right before the curtains were pulled. She smiles, a little surprised that she recognizes me too.

“My cat was your cat?” she asks in disbelief. It appears so. That cat of hers that she lost some time ago? That was Marlon. And when he finally jumped out my window, after thinking I had completely lost my mind, he went back home to her.

“My name’s Jerome,” I say to her as I finally pull Marlon off. “Jerry.”

“Sophie.” She replies, her hand to her mouth. “What a funny coincidence, isn’t it?” Marlon jumps up into her arms. “He was waiting for me when I got home this morning, and then he made me follow him all the way here.”

“I guess you were right about the cats always coming home.” I joke.

“I didn’t say that. It’s some expression the kids use I think.” She asks me if I’ve ever noticed how much he likes to eat fruit. And what happened to his tail.

Marlon convinces Sophie to enter my apartment, and he convinces me to close the door behind her. And we just took it from there.

As it turns out, Marlon the cat’s real name is Merle. And Sophie bought him from a traveling snake charmer somewhere out west.

JRM Brothers eventually went out of business. You can actually see right through the windows now.

I work five days a week at Gary Sparkles’ Barbershop.

Was Julie real? Or was she merely a figment of my imagination? Or some kind of supernatural force? Does it even matter anymore? Not really.

And I couldn’t be happier.

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