I returned to the counter and demanded more sauce of the teenager. She was tightly wound and did as told. She looked good. She was at her peak. I asked for napkins and she brought them straight out of her apron. She gave all of them. I loitered at the counter and she waited for me to say the next thing.
“Well, how ‘bout the salt,” I said.
Up from the apron came the salt. It slammed down. Never on earth had a person so vigorously delivered salt on command, not especially for a loaf like me. There was everything before this young woman, and she would do some things to run the table.
“Do you break the speed limit?” I asked.
“Five over? Ten over?”
“Would you steal a dead woman’s wig?”
“If the interview required a perm.”
“My God, You’ll have disarmed all nukes by my 50th birthday.”
“Diplomatically. And not ours,” she said, smirking. “But actually my plan—”
She went on to tell of many things, including a campaign for tougher babies, as would be necessary given what’s in store for mankind. Also a ban on certain less reliable forms of chemotherapy, so then reallocating those funds toward proven carbon-offsets. So on. And so on.
I set my burger mess on the counter and cut her off.
“It’s a good plan,” I said.
She looked to the burger.
“There’s a lot left there. Mind if I box it and snarf it up in my apartment later? Eating costs, but I have to stay regular with it. Or I’ll look like you someday.”
“Another good plan. I’m going to walk home now.”
I walked a few blocks. The day seemed good, even productive. Though by now I’d figured this came of the burger mostly, and a bit too the sunshine and threat of war, and that once into the latter-PMs I’d see it all differently. I’d see waste and suffering.
Suddenly three young men crossed the street. They came toward me and quickened. They wore shirts and ties and slacks. Down the walkway they joined arms and formed a wall. I turned and ran.
I’ll admit to calling this forth. I’d stolen their tithe seven months running, deposit slips and all. It was intuitive. We whites crave struggle. Not the real struggle, but the kind we can sell and wrap our beady heads around. Those thefts were a momentary rise and foretold of consequences and near-term—yet manageable—complications. Now the running felt good too. I was slow and clumsy. My hair matted over my eyes. I was a dog and they were gaining on me. I made bad turns. I serpentined at random. I jumped a very small crate in an alley. Fly, Philip, fly.
Beyond the crate they got me. They must have stepped around, and were waiting on the other side. A light beating ensued. I kicked and cursed. They shouted ultimatums and gave me a scratch on the cheek. The blood smeared on the shoulder of one, the shortest one with a handsome, military look. Solid. With fatigues and a mandate he could do a few things. Yet here he saw the smear and let off. He became confused and looked about himself. This was no battlefield, but there was my bit of blood.
The two others abandoned the conflicted boy, who himself eventually wandered off alone. He passed by saying, “Ooof!” and “Gad, Jonathon. Gad!”
I lay there a while. The way a sucker would. Finally I rose from the pavement feeling a conqueror. I’d survived. Even worse, my dumb, emboldened brain told me now was the time. So I went up to my apartment and got the loot from the sock door, $330, mixed bills, came down and hopped on a pay scooter and pedaled it to Bryn’s.
I knocked and knocked and knocked. I sat on a ceramic pot and waited. I stared at a clematis against the masonry, years overgrown from within. Thatchy. I’m no libertarian—you’ve got to help these things along. If ever I could be of use, it was to thin the clematis.
I knocked and knocked. Suddenly I was losing confidence. I’d been watching my face turn to mash of late. One shouldn’t be able to navigate this world with such a face. Much less should he achieve reconciliation with a woman who’d known its better version. I turned to leave but heard the door. I regathered myself. She spoke through the crack.
“Phil, what the hell is it.”
“Babe I’ve got coin now,” I said. “A whole lot of it. I look damn terrible, but the coin will blunt the ugly.”
“It was never about the coin.”
“But couldn’t it be?”
“Well, yes or no?”
“Yes, though it shames my gender to say it. I’m upside down in this place. I’ve overextended. I dated this finance guy, Kevin. Kevin helped me with the paperwork for loans.”
“Don’t think about your gender. Forget Kevin. God dammit do you want my money and my love or what?”
“Well— I do. But Phil you became a Mormon. You went deep. You changed things.”
“Oh that. It was all just boredom and fetish. Research. I never meant it and you know as much. And in the first place I went and told them off just yesterday.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Look, people, it can’t be all good news. There’s no way.’ I used the example of a dying pfitzer. I said, ‘Look at it. See how it leaves this world? Some dead bits over here, some bigger chunks over there. It’s got no legs. It drags itself out the door this way. And all the while it’s drawing the blood of children. They toss each other in on their way to school. They bully. Sometimes it’s an accident, but all the same. And it’ll go on this way for many years. Pfitzers die the slow death. At times they appear to recover, to green a little. Then it’s back to the slow death. That’s me. That’s what I fucking feel like. And it ain’t good news.’”
“Well they insisted that in spite of everything, it was all still good news. The best news, even. And to be honest, if I look at it in a certain light, maybe a sort of dim but serviceable light, I see merit there. Probably it’s the fetish talking, but I can still see it, and it’s going to be my lot in life to creep close to those big ticket items on occasion, to try and make them out. And you’ve got to endure it and support me or else we’re all up the creek and alone. Anyway, that’s most of what I said, Bryn. I told them I was out and then I turned and showed my ass.”
“I did. And they laughed. One guy did a spit-take. I’d forgotten how sad a butt it was.”
Bryn smiled, and there I saw it. Reconciliation. After these years. And not by coin or swagger or conviction. No. It was that pitiful ass which we both knew well and regarded with fervor. It was cultural.
She took off the latch and I entered. Inside was the familiar structure, though there was nothing really left of me now. Here were new hardwoods, pristinely cut and finished. LED lights and repainted, pastel walls, smartly schemed. Apart from the occasional whiff of Kevin, it was everything bare, delicate, and fresh. A total reboot. I’d be starting from scratch. And of course once you’ve built the thing from scratch there’s the pressure to keep it standing and whole and even pure.
In the entrance way, all at once—and once again—I became irritable and strange. $330 felt light.
I was petrified.
Raymond Deej lives in Idaho with his kids. That’s everything. The daughter makes the rules.