08 March 2011

Never odd or even

Never Odd or Even

“A monster that asks to be loved, ‘love me, love me.’  And when the words come back ‘I love you’ these monsters doubt and know that it’s a lie.  ‘Prove it’ they say.  ‘Obey me, give me power.’ And when they are obeyed the monster grows hungrier.  ‘If you love me, die for me, kill for me, give all to me and leave nothing for yourself.’  And yet they are beautiful monsters because when they live in a network of peace and hope, when they trust the world and their deepest hungers are fulfilled, then there is joy within that system.  That is what we live for, to bind the monsters together, to murder their fear and give birth to their beauty.”
-          Orson Scott Card

A cockroach scampered across his limp, horizontal body.  Cockroaches lived in the cracks of the floors, behind the walls, under the sink, behind the toilet, in the toilet.  They reproduced astonishingly fast.  They survived on whatever food they could find.  They were ubiquitous.  They were a resilient, robot-type beast.  At first he tried to kill them.  He smashed them.  He tried poisons.  Eventually he had grown accustomed to having them lurk in the darkness of his dank room. This particular cockroach was seemingly accustomed to him.  This cockroach may have only been searching for food or looking for a comfortable place to rest but when the indestructible beast laid one of its metallic claws on the naked flesh of the man’s arm, his hand swiftly snatched the insect and squashed it in a clenched fist.  He might be used to them but he still hated them.  He sat up in his bed, staring at his closed hand.  He opened his fist and wiped his hand on the mattress.  The air in the room was thick and smelled like six-month-old rotten potato.  He reached over to the rickety nightstand, grabbed a cigarette, and lit it before it reached his mouth.  He took a long deep breath, held it for a few seconds and watched the smoke rise from his mouth in the dim light of the room.   There was a knock on the door.  He stayed sitting in the same position and inhaled another puff of smoke.  Again the knock came.
            “C’mon, John.  Open the door.  I know you’re in there.”
            As the smoke escaped from his mouth, he slowly rose from the bed and walked the few steps to the door.  He unlocked the bolt lock and opened it to see a lady, a young, well-dressed, brown eyed brunette.  He always forgot how beautiful she was.  Her voice echoed for a second inside his head.
             “What have you been doing?  I’ve been trying to reach you all day, not to mention yesterday and the day before.”  She walked past the bent figure at the door.  She laid a box down on the bed.  She picked up the phone and held it out toward him.  “Your phone is disconnected.”  She put the phone back on the hook.  “Don’t you pay your bills?”
            “Hello, Jacki.  How are you?” he closed the door and walked toward her.
            “This is the suit I want you to wear,” she pointed at the box on his bed.  “This is important, it could mean a job for you.  So I’d appreciate it if you took this seriously.  I’ve arranged for you to meet Mr. Egar tonight at eight.  Unfortunately, it’s at my place, but oh well.  Try to be on time.”  She started to walk toward the door, stopped and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, at the same time reaching for the door handle.  “Love you, and for God’s sake get some air freshener.”  She opened the door and left.
            “I love you, too,” he said and put the remains of his cigarette out in the ashtray on the night stand.  He walked over to the window and saw her disappear into a large black limousine that sped off as quickly as she had come and gone.  He stepped back over by the bed and opened the box.  Inside was a dark blue Neiman-Marcus suit, a white shirt, a pair of black shoes, socks, and a solid blue tie.  He pored over the belongings and looked at his own apparel.  He was wearing an old dirty T-shirt he hadn’t washed for months.  He lifted his arm and smelled his armpit.  His shirt didn’t smell good, either did he.  His torn jeans made him feel worn and old.  He looked at his clothes and the new suit on the bed.  He left his room to take a shower.
            At six o’clock in his new blue suit, he wandered out of his room and quietly sneaked down the stairs to the first floor.  He opened the lobby door and hurriedly tried to exit. 
            “Ah, Mr. Dealus, going out tonight?”
            “Me?  Yes, Mr. Hanson,” he turned to face a fat man in faded jeans and a rugged, rusty sweatshirt.  Mr. Hanson was a fighter who'd had gone bald so the first thing that stuck out were his cauliflower ears.   The scars of his numerous fights could be seen in the shadowy light of his office.  His paunch and flab was at one time muscle, perhaps long ago; but he no longer stood tall and he hid behind a Plexiglas cage with a small hole in it where it met the wall so he could handle the money.  Regardless of what shape he was in, he still intimidated people when it came to his rental fees.  He also had a set of paid bruisers to help collect payments.
            “You know,” Hanson grumbled, “I don’t like being jerked around.”  What once may have been a strong voice had now been scratched over by time and smoke and drink into what sounded like the low grunting of a car engine – idling, then fading away into nothingness.  “You’re looking nice, there.”
            “It’s not my suit, Mr. Hanson.”
            “You owe me money Mr. Dealus – rent, Mr. Dealus.  Remember that?”
            “Look, I’ve always paid you, Jack.  I’ve always kept square…”
            “I’m not talking about always,” Mr. Hanson interrupted.  “I’m talking about now.”
            “Come on, Mr. Hanson, just give me one chance.  See, my girl, she’s getting’ me a job with her.  It’s a good job.  And then, well, then you’ll get your money, and then some.  I swear it to you.  Honest.  I really gotta go, though, seein’ I can’t be late.”
            “Okay, Mr. Dealus, a few more days, this one time,” he held a crooked index finger up in the air, “oone….” He coughed and tried to clear his throat.  Then he reiterated, “once.  Then, you’re out on you ass.”
            “Thanks, Mr. Hanson.”  He turned around to leave and as the door was closing behind him he heard Mr. Hanson yell in his motor car voice,  “and don’t ya ever try sneakin’ out again!”
            When he heard the old man snort, laugh and cough all at the same time, John chuckled.  He also chuckled because where other people might find themselves in trouble, he knew that he found himself safe for the moment.  He stopped on the corner to light a cigarette.
            The flower shop was two blocks north, and the bus stop was two blocks south.  He figured he’d buy something for Jacki, catch the bus across town and arrive just on time.  As he walked toward the flower shop, he pictured her in his mind.  She was beautiful, and the glow in her brown eyes still sent waves of pleasure through him.  He grinned and wished he could show her his feelings.  He opened the door of the shop.
            All the flowers looked so sweet and colorful.  He hoped he could afford a rose, at least.  He thought that would be nice.  The slouching lady at the counter looked at him with an uncertain look.  It was the suit, he thought.  This was the first time he’d worn one in years.  He had worn a suit on his first and last job interview, twenty years ago.
            “Hello,” he said.  “I’d just like to … um … well, I guess I want to buy some flowers or … Well, see, I’m going to see a special lady tonight and I’d like to bring her something, you know, a little something.  Something nice,” he said recklessly.  “So, can you recommend anything?”
               “Well,” she said unenthusiastically in a voice that matched her posture.  “We’ve got some pretty arrangements to choose from,” her voice was nasal and as she walked toward the cooler, her body sloped forward and her legs moved as if they were brooms attached to her arms, “or you can create your own.  You could get her a dozen roses, women love roses.  Does she like roses?”
            He nodded his head.
            “So, you could get a dozen roses and I’d add some baby’s breath.  It’s real pretty together.”
            “Well, how much …how much does that cost?” hesitantly.
            “ The roses are six fifty apiece.  Eighty-one ninety with tax.”
            “Ah, I see,” he stammered.  “Maybe that’s a little flamboyant, you know.”
            “Uh-huh,” she nodded.  “How much do you want to spend, sir?”
            He looked at her a bit startled by her frankness and the callousness of her voice but it was late in the day.  And, he knew he didn’t have a penny to spare, obviously she did, too.  Even in a new suit and tie, it’s hard to hide the odor of poverty.   He dug his hand into his blue suit pants’ pocket and pulled out four singles, two cents and a dime, a broken pencil, and a filter from a smoked cigarette.  He tried to make the defeated look look good but failed.  He raised his eyebrows and hands exposing what a truly penniless person he was. 
She, in turn, reduced him to a poorly built machine when she said,  “You can buy a daisy for two bucks.”
            But he didn’t care.  “Okay, I’ll take it.”
            She disappeared into a back room.  After a few minutes, she reappeared, somewhat disappointedly, holding what seemed to be just a small bundle of paper.
            “That’ll be two fourteen with tax.”
            “You know, I’d buy more … but … ah … I got to get across town, you know?”  Her eyelids sagged.  Her head nodded up and down.  He left.
            The bus was not as crowded as he thought it would be and he was able to secure a seat in the middle of the bus.  That’s where the best ride is gotten.  Old people don’t expect to be given the middle seats, they sit in the front.  And, the hooligans walk right past to sit in the back with the drunks.  The bus itself was animate.  With all of the strangers and strange folks riding together, the bus became alive, but only intermittently.  It was a giant metallic beast that felt new life when passengers boarded, lost life when they left.  But it kept breathing.  Huffing through the city.  Carrying inhabitants, old, small, smart, and strong.  For many of these people, the dim light in the bus was a shield, a cloaked disguise. The cloak worked all the better when it was accompanied by the outside darkness.  The travelers on board minded their own business.  Someone could be bleeding or coughing up a lung and it could go without attention.  The bus just breathed on.  One person would exit at one stop, two would get on at the next; it was a revolving door of faces. 
            “That’s a nice suit, buddy,” a scraggly voice from behind sputtered out.
            John tried to ignore the voice but knew full well it was directed at him.  And the second time he heard it, it was a bit louder and a bit more obtrusive.
            “I said, that’s a nice suit you got there.”
            The stranger looked about the same age as John, with dark hair and the eyes to match; his voice was as persistent as a truck blasting its horn.   “Yeah, thanks,” John said and hoped that would be the end of the conversation.  
            “Must a cost a pretty penny.”  He whistled then.
            “I don’t know.  I didn’t buy it.”  John hoped the stranger’s stop would come quickly.
            “How much you think a suit like that costs?”
            “I don’t know.”  Now John refused to look back at him.
            “I betcha it cost a lot.  Hmm, probly two hundred or so, maybe more.  I could a had a suit like that.  Yes sir, back in the days when my grandfather worked, I bet I would a wore a suit like that.  It would a cost a pretty penny.”  He whistled.
            John turned around, looked directly at the man, “Look, man, I said I didn’t buy the suit.  I don’t know how much it cost.  I have no idea.  If you think I’ve got money, well you’ve got the wrong idea.  I haven’t got a pot to piss…”
            “Hey!  Hold on, man.”  The man raised his hands in exasperation. 
            “…in.  I have no money.  I can’t give you anything.”
            “Man, take it easy, man.  Be cool.”
            “I’m just riding the bus.”  John turned around to face the front.
            The man moved up to the seat across the aisle.  “Hold on, man.  Hold on.  I never said nothin’ about no money.  I’m just making some polite conversation.  You and I we’re just going somewhere, okay.  We don’t know where, we’re just going. Take it easy.”   He stared.  “Hey?”  He stared and tried to get John’s attention.  “Okay?  We’re cool, right?”
            “Yeah, all right.  We’re cool.”
            “So, I ain’t after your money.  Just talk.”
            “All right.”
            “I’m sorry I got you so excited, man. Real sorry.”
            “Okay, it’s okay.”
            “You’re all tense.  You got a big gig?  A date?”
            “Yeah, I suppose it’s a date.” 
            “Not me.  I’m headed home for the night.  Get some food. Watch some TV.  Relax.  I love to just be able to relax.”
            John glanced over, “Yeah, don’t we all.”  The man wasn’t relaxed.  He had stopped staring at John but he appeared nervous.  He was glancing ahead, then over at John, then out the window.
            “So, you’re going to see your girl.  Nice flower.”
            John grinned and nodded.
            “She live uptown?  That’s a long ride.”
            The bus held two other passengers.  Neither of them paid any attention to the conversation behind them.
            “Hey, buddy, my name’s Lee.”  He reached out his hand.
            “I’m John.”  They shook hands.  Lee smiled.  His two front teeth were rotting and black.  The rest of his teeth were dark yellow.  His breath stank of alcohol and smoke.
            For a while after their introductions, they sat inside the stomach of the dirty bus in silence.  John looked out the scratched plastic window and watched the outside pass by.  Whenever the bus stopped and the doors opened, he looked at the people who got on and off.  The bus swallowed people up, and spat them back out randomly around the city, John thought.  Of course, the people got off where they wanted, but he thought it humorous to think that they, we, didn’t have much of a choice where they got off the bus.  There were only a certain amount of stops.  He reflected that each one of the passengers was a prisoner in the transport.  His thoughts were distracted when the doors opened and a cool breeze whistled through.  The breeze emptied the bus of the stench of dirt.  John noticed that it smelled after he felt the breeze.  Before that, it hadn’t smelled at all.
            “Strange how all of us travel together, hey?” Lee was getting up.  “This here’s my stop.  Take care, man.  And stay warm.” 
            John nodded and the man climbed down into the street.  The bus accelerated.  John watched Lee wander down the street. 
            A few blocks later, John’s stop came up.  He followed the street for two blocks, turned right, walked a few blocks more, then a left, one block and a right.  The doorman at the building was expecting him and greeted him with smiles.  He opened the door and said, “Welcome, Mr. Dealus.  It’s nice to see you again.  They’re expecting you upstairs.”
            “Thank you. It’s good to see you, too.”
            “That’s an excellent suit, sir.”
            The interior of the building had been painted with bright colors, every corner, every piece of wood.  It was the brightness that always struck him the most each time he visited Jacki here.  And each of the times he’d been here, the first word that came to his mind was bright.  Today, it seemed especially bright.
            The elevator man seldom spoke.  When he did, it was only an occasional ‘nice weather today.’  But, he always had a twinkle in his eyes like a mischievous child.   He nodded at John and pressed the button for the fourteenth floor.  When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, John asked, “How do I look?”
            “Exceptional, sir,” the elevator man said.
            “Thank you,” John smiled.
            When he arrived at fourteen-ten, he rang the bell.  After a brief delay, Jacki opened the door.  She was wearing a long black dress, her hair was tucked up in the shape of a large ball on the back of her head.  They both smiled at each other. 
            “John, I’m so glad you came.  Please, come in.”
            John handed her the paper daisy.  “This is for you,” he fumbled. 
            “It’s beautiful.  Thank you.”
            As they walked into the room, she set the daisy onto a small table near the entrance.  As the door closed, a breeze stumbled through tossing the daisy into the corner next to the door.                 
            “That suit looks impeccable, John.  Now, you’ve basically got this job.  Just be open minded, okay?” She whispered as they walked through the hallway.
            At the end of the hall, the space opened into an immense family room with a large window that displayed the city lights.  An older man in a dark sweater and light pants with white hair and a small mole on his left cheek sat on one of the three couches that were spread around the room.  He was sipping a drink he held in his left hand.  On the coffee table, a vase held a dozen roses, big, red, and bright.
            “John Dealus meet Theodore Egar,” Jacki exclaimed as they entered.
            The old man stood up and extended his right hand.  “Please, call me Mr. Egar,” he and Jacki laughed.  John smiled. 
            “Good to meet you, Mr. Egar.”
            “Ted, John, call me Ted.”
            “Okay,” John said and smiled again.
            “Please come in.  Have a seat.  Would you like a drink?”
            “No, thank you.”
            “John doesn’t drink,” Jacki said impatiently.
            “Oh, right, I remember,” Mr. Egar replied.  “Well, anyway, sit down, please.  Make yourself comfortable.”
            Jacki excused herself to the kitchen.  She had prepared some hors d’oeuvres.
            “So Jacki tells me that you’re an excellent writer,” Mr. Egar said as he sat back down on the couch.
            John sat down opposite of him, “She’s being generous.  I haven’t had a thing published in a while.”
            Jacki sauntered back into the room with a tray filled with tiny sandwiches.  The bread had had the crust removed from it.  Each sandwich formed an identical square.  Each had some brown muck spread between the slices of bread. 
            “John,” Mr. Egar started to get up, “I’m getting another drink, would you like one?”
            “No,” John shook his head.  “I don’t drink.”
            Jacki set the tray on the table.  She gave Mr. Egar a scrunched look.  “I better help you with that drink,” she grumbled.
            From the kitchen, John could hear some heavy words being tossed around.  He ate a sandwich.  He looked at the piano.  Pictures in small uniform frames were spread across the top of it.  Pictures of Mr. Egar, some younger people, all of them were smiling.  There was a picture of Egar and some other man and a picture of Egar and Jacki.  Mr. Egar and his arm draped over Jacki’s shoulder.  They were both smiling.  At the other end of the piano, were more pictures of Jacki and Mr. Egar together.  John looked around the apartment.  There was a painting of a deer in the woods, and a portrait of an old man in a suit and tie.  It was Theodore Egar.  John had slept here, played piano here, and he’d never noticed these pictures before.  Suddenly he felt very stupid.  He grabbed a few sandwiches and slipped them into his suit coat pocket.
            Jacki and Mr. Egar reappeared.  Each of them had a glass of wine. 
“Well, John, I’m just going to cut to the chase.   I’d like it if you’d come to work for my company.  Jacki tells me that you’re an excellent writer but that you’ve been through some … well, adversity.  Anyway, let me give you some information I had my secretary type up.  Now, where did I put that.”
“Oh, Ted, I think it’s in the bedroom.  I’ll go get it,” Jacki inserted.
“No, no, spend some time with your friend.  I’ll go get it.”  He left the room and walked down a hallway in the opposite direction of the door, toward the bedroom.  Jacki watched him disappear.  She looked back at John.  She looked uncomfortable.
“That suit looks nice,” she stammered uncomfortably. 
“He doesn’t know about this, does he?” John asked as he grabbed the suit coat and shook it.  “He doesn’t know about us, just like I didn’t know about you.”
“Please, stay quiet, John.  Shit.  I wanted to tell you but … it was never appropriate.”
“Christ, you hid it so well … God, every time I came over, you had to hide the picture, the portrait,” he pointed at Egar’s face on the wall.  “God.”
“John, please.”
John stood up. 
“John…” Jacki’s voice was cut off by the booming voice of Mr. Egar.
“I’ve found it.  This ought to tell you everything you need to know, John.”  Mr. Egar emerged holding up a booklet.
“Actually, I’ve got to be going, sir.  Thank you for your time.”  He started walking toward the door.
“Well, at least take this information about my company,” Mr. Egar implored.
“Okay, thank you.”
John opened the door and started to leave. 
“John, my direct line is listed on the last page.  Call me on Monday, and we’ll see about you coming in for a visit, okay?” 
 John nodded and grinned.  “Goodnight Mr. and Mrs. Egar,” he said. 
While he was waiting for the elevator, Jacki came out.
She said softly, “Regardless of us, take this job.”
He ignored her and stared at the elevator doors.   They opened.  He looked at the floor and entered.  The elevator man pressed the button for the first floor.  John turned around as the doors were closing.  He looked up at Jacki’s face.
She walked back to her apartment.  Mr. Egar was waiting for her in the hall.  He put his hand on her shoulder.  
“Was your friend feeling okay?”
“He just gets uncomfortable,” she nodded.
“Kind of a strange guy, Jacki.  How’d you meet him?”  
They turned around to start walking into the apartment, when she noticed the daisy lying on the ground in the corner.
“He called us Mr. and Mrs. Egar.  What was that all about?”
She shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

John got off the elevator, dropped the information about Mr. Egar’s company into the garbage can.  The doorman said goodnight and something about leaving so soon.  John concurred, nodded his head and wished the doorman a safe warm night. 
He wasn’t interested in riding the bus back to his place.  He felt like walking.  He walked in the opposite direction of the bus stop.  He headed in the direction of the bus route, toward his home.  It had to be almost a two-hour walk home.  He lifted the back of his collar, put his head down and started moving his legs.  Straight, right, left, blocks went by.  His mind went blank.  He concentrated on walking on.
As he passed an alleyway, he noticed a small dark figure rummaging in the garbage.  He stopped and peered into the darkness.   It was a small dirty dog.  As John approached it, it started growling.  John stopped.  As he stood watching the mongrel bear its teeth, he remembered the sandwiches in his pocket.  He reached in and grabbed one.  He threw it to the mutt and squatted with the other two sandwiches in his hand.  The dog lowered its head.  Sniffing the sandwich, it grabbed it in its mouth.  It swallowed the crustless bread without chewing and approached cautiously.  John threw out another piece of food.  Again, the dog sniffed, but this time with more confidence, and swallowed the sandwich without chewing.  Suddenly, the dog became frightened.  It backed away.  It growled again.  “It’s okay,” John whispered.  John felt a quick sharp pain in his chest.  He saw the blur of a hand flash past his face.  He reached up to his chest, dropping the last sandwich on the ground.  He saw blood reddening his bright white shirt.  He heard a voice swearing as he fell over onto his back.  He looked up into the voice.
“Dammit, fuck, shit, man, how was I supposed to know it was you?  Goddamit, I didn’t think I’d see you again, man.”  The man bent over and searched the writhing panting body.  “Fuck, you were telling the truth, too, man.  You don’t got shit for money.”  The man stood up again.  He looked at the dying figure, “I’m sorry, John.  Man, I’m sorry.”  With that, the man took a hop step, looked back at the dying man, shook his head and ran away into the darkness.
John saw the dog creep back from out of the darkness.  It sniffed around the prone wheezing body.  Moving cautiously, it grabbed the last sandwich and swiftly darted off.  And then, everything went dark.

And so it goes.  

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