(Art by spoon+fork.)
Work on Monday was going as OK as it could until this guy spazzed out on me when I told him we were out of tomatoes.
“Son of a bitch, let me talk to your manager!” He had on a pair of insect-eye sunglasses, the kind that only California assholes wear.
“We’re out of tomatoes, sir,” Howard called out. He was sitting on a milk crate and slumping against the freezer door, just out of view of the customer.
“A burger’s not a burger without tomatoes!” the customer yelled, sticking his face in the opened order window and looking around for Howard.
“McDonald’s doesn’t use tomatoes, and some people think they sell hamburgers,” Howard’s voice called out again.
The guy flipped the sunglasses on top of his head and rubbed his temples. One eye was bloodshot.
“All events are neutral,” he said quietly. “It’s our own values that we put on them that make them good or bad.” Then he looked at me and said, “I’ll have two hot dogs.”
I walked over to the freezer and pried out two hot dogs from the frozen mass of what used to be the lowest shelf. Because of a power outage, the freezer had melted and frozen again. The inside was one big discolored sheet of ice that looked like polar bear fur stained with piss.
“Can you just deep-fry them instead of grilling them?” asked the man. That was the classic New Jersey way of cooking dogs. Most tourists didn’t want them like that because frying them split the skin and the flesh would burst out.
“The dogs are frozen solid, they’re not thawed out. They’re not going to turn out right,” I told him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Frying brings out the natural goodness in foods.”
He was right. At least they looked pretty good, considering they expired a few months ago and that the oil in the fryer hadn’t been changed all summer.
I even cooked one for myself later on, but couldn’t bring myself to eat it, knowing that it was old meat. I gave it to Howard instead. He ate it and I watched for something to happen.
“Let me give you some more career advice,” he said when he was done.
“For the sake of practicality, get a shitty job in the city. It will pay less than in Philly, but you only have to ride one train system instead of two and as the years go by, there will be more opportunities to advance than in Philly.”
“Going from NJ Transit to Septa for Philly does suck.”
“Those are rival state agencies that hate each other. Nothing make them happier than when one of them is running late and misses the departing connection.”
“Aw, I’m still working on my business plan. Just two things are for sure now. I’m going to be the boss and I don’t want to leave the shore. I need to smell the salt in the air to feel alive. Maybe I need a few years to perfect the plan.”
“What are you going to do when it’s off-season?”
“I have all kinds of contacts. There’s a senior housing facility in Bradley Beach. A college friend of mine works at the reception desk there. He already said he could get me a job as the indoor-activities coordinator for the fall and winter.”
“Worst comes to worst, Howard, we’re never going to be able to afford a house or even get married. We’re going to be 30 and flipping burgers for Bennys.”
He nodded and smiled. Bennys were the assholes who came down from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York. They didn’t mix in too well with the California kids.
“I’ve decided I want to be happy in this life,” he said. “Did you know that you never really own a house? The bank owns it–you just spend most of your life paying off the mortgage, the debt. Even if you pay that all off, you still have to pay taxes on the property to the government. It’s the same with paying for car insurance every year.”
It was hot and I didn’t feel like talking, so I went about making an iced coffee as Howard went on.
“The more money you spend, the more things you accumulate and the more debt you rack up. I’m still paying off college. But I’m glad I went if only because I took one class on poetry. It’s taken me a few years to realize this, but I am, at heart, a poet. I mean, deep inside my entrepreneurial spirit.
“You know, the Chinese poets isolated themselves from the world and got high or drunk to write poems. Back then, everything was super organic and the highs were better and longer. Lucky for me, this weed gets me pretty close to their plane. Wu-wei. The act of non-doing.”
After a while, when I didn’t say anything, he added, “I’ve been writing poetry at home. I feel like my mind is only now becoming truly free.”
“I’m not into that, man.”
“I can tell that about you.”
I sipped my iced coffee to the bottom before asking, “How can you tell that about me?”
“You’re geared to material pleasures. I’m not judging you, but I have to tell you that ultimately, it’s not going to make you happy. You know, I can see Andrea Conti giving you handjobs through the windshield of the truck. Me? I don’t want other people jerking me off.”
I tossed my plastic cup into the sink and put my hands in my pockets.
“Well, that’s because you’re a fucking idiot,” I said.
“I just have a different focus.”
“Focus on minding your own goddamned business!”
“You know Howard well?” I asked Mrs. Angrywall.
“No, not well. I’ve barely spoken with him.”
“He hates Indian people.”
“Yeah! He calls you people ‘dots’ and says you’re taking over the country.”
“Aren’t you going to do something about it?”
“This being America, I suppose I should get a gun and shoot him in the head and the heart? Perhaps in the balls, too?”
“Call the police on him! I can be your witness!”
“Sean, anyone can say nearly anything they want to. It’s a free country.”
“But he was saying racist things!”
“You should hear my husband talk about white people.”
It was embarrassing to be seen going in, but the store wasn’t dirty or anything. Most of the things there were pretty new. Stuff bought by summer renters and then left on the premises.
I thought I could get by without a TV but I was breaking down. The goldfish was getting boring to look at. Even in prison I got to watch TV in the afternoons, I think because they were trying to rehabilitate us with the after-school public-service messages.
I cut across the parking lot by the 7-11 and went into the Goodwill with my head down. An electronic chime went off to my left. I went straight back to the appliances.
There were three coffee machines and a mixer missing a blade on the top shelf. There was a bulky device on the floor that looked like a microwave on its side, but it was a bread maker. Who in the world needed to make their apartment hotter? I thought about the bakery under my apartment and my arm twitched.
Between a toaster and an ice-cream maker, I found a red, solid-state Panasonic television. It was black and white. Some yo-yo had slapped a Yankees sticker to the side. It was $5. There was also a color TV-VCR-radio combo unit, but they wanted $20 for that.
It would’ve been nice to have the VCR, but $20 was just too much for something that looked like R2D2. “Star Wars” was dumb as hell, but the light-saber fights are great when you’re high.
I cleared off a shelf of crushed women’s shoes to get at the electric outlet in the wall. I bent back the prongs to normal on the Red Yankee’s plug and pushed it in. The switch had been left on and a howl of static came from the tiny speaker.
I adjusted the knobs to VHF from UHF and came across a soap opera. Stray lines scrolled across the tube, but the picture looked good enough. I messed with the antenna and it looked better. Aerial, Mrs. Angrywall would have called it.
Then I switched the knob off, but the Red Yankee stayed on. The volume would go all the way down, but you had to unplug the TV to cut the power. I could deal with that.
The TV was light enough to carry by the fingertips of my left hand. I headed to the cashier. I used my right hand to beat back two racks of wool suits that were closing in on me.
Then I saw, right by the book rack, two fishing poles that had fallen into each other, their lines entangled. I went over to finger the merchandise. The reels were still good and were barely used, but there was no price tag on them.
I picked them up and brought everything to the front counter.
“How much?” I asked about the fishing poles.
Behind the counter was a middle-aged woman with straw hair who looked sadder when she tried to smile. She’d be a good model for someone who wanted to paint a portrait from the Great Depression, or just depression itself.
“I can’t sell them without price tags.”
“They have to be priced by a representative from the central office. These rods just came in.”
“You can’t just say how much they are?”
“We have to account for everything here. We’re not Enron, son.”
“Look,” I said. “I’ll give you $10 for the rods.” Her eyebrows arched and she looked down at the far end of the store. A man was taking off his socks to try on a pair of flip-flops.
She rang up $5 for the Red Yankee and tax on the cash register and took the extra $10 for the rods and put it in her pants pocket.
I got back to my apartment and sat on my bed. I had to cut through the tangled line and I didn’t have a sharp knife or pair of scissors. I went to the bathroom and took the nail clippers from the shelf.
I looked at the goldfish, who could see the fishing pole clearly from where he was.
“Don’t take it personally,” I told him. “I’m not going to catch anybody you know.”
I went back to the bedroom. I plugged in the television, found a show to listen to and then went to work on the fishing line.
(Part 11 next week.)