(Art by spoon+fork.)
Chuck worked out a deal for me and they released me to my overheated apartment. The first thing I did was go into the bathroom and feed my fish.
I had been gone almost a week and was mildly worried I’d find him floating at the top. He seemed hungry but normal. I ran the water in the tub as I watched him eat. I turned the fish food can over in my hand and read it for the first time. I was shocked to see that the top ingredient was “fish meal.”
I knew fish in the ocean ate each other, but I thought tame fish were too civilized to do the same. Would goldfish eat the flakes if they knew what was in them?
When the water was high enough, I undressed and got into the tub.
The reason I couldn’t eat the veal sandwich, and why I felt a little sick seeing Mr. Johnson eat it, was that my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Daley showed us some pictures from a veal farm. She had pictures of cramped stalls with no windows and said veal was the meat of baby cows who were fed very little and had their legs chained or broken so they couldn’t develop muscle and their meat stayed white and tender.
She also had a picture of a dumpster that looked like it was filled with Corn Pops cereal. But when you looked close, you saw that it was a pile of dead baby chickens. The male chicks were thrown in the garbage and suffocated soon after they were born because they wouldn’t grow up to give as much meat as female chicks.
About once a week, she’d give us another reason to be a vegetarian. Some kids were throwing their bologna sandwiches in the trash.
Then one day, instead of telling us about how bad our food was, she gave us all copies of “The Corduroy Road.” After that, lunchmeat was okay again. It hadn’t been a problem for me because I only had peanut butter, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Mrs. Daley went on quietly drinking a can of V8 with nuts and dried fruits on the side. She didn’t even say anything when the boy in the back killed his first deer and brought in some venison for the whole class to try. I remembered that the meat was tough and tasted like sweat.
After a while the water in the tub grew cold and filmy. I had to piss so I climbed out.
I lay in bed naked for a while. I wasn’t sure what to do. It was going to be some time before the trial and my big show. Until then I had to fight the urge to go to the hotel. Mrs. Aggarwal wasn’t there anymore, but I wanted to walk around on the motel roof again. We had had some good times together and it wasn’t just the pot, either. I had never had such plain and open conversations in my adult life, and certainly not with a woman.
She hated me now. I was sure. I wondered if she would have hated me more if I had chosen not to testify and let her spend a year in jail like I did.
On the other hand, I saved myself. I think.
“I’m not Jesus,” I said out loud. I plugged in my TV but now it was dead.
In the morning, someone was buzzing my door. I got up, put on a towel and slippers.
I went over to the intercom, pressed a button and said, “Yes?”
“Sean,” said Andrea Conti. “It’s me!”
I pulled the towel tighter against my waist.
“What are you doing here, Andrea?”
“Get down here! I’m gonna take you to buy a suit.”
“I already have a suit.” It was from the thrift store and some guy probably died in it, but the suit fit well.
“Just get down here, okay?”
I went to the closet and yanked the suit off the rack. It smelled a little musty, like young tree roots just pulled out from the ground. I threw it on the bed to let it air out. I put on a clean pocket T-shirt and a pair of cut-offs.
When I got downstairs I saw that she was in a shiny convertible, a Sebring. Andrea flipped her sunglasses up and said, “Hi, stranger!”
She threw the car into drive even before I got the door closed all the way.
“Jesus, Andrea, at least let me get my seat belt on!”
“Sean, you’re going to be famous. You already are! You’re in the papers every day!” She was chewing a huge wad of gum but it didn’t slow down her talking.
“I came this close to . . .”
“You know, we let these people into our country and they come in here and they don’t even try to fit in! They want our money but they hate our culture! Cooking that disgusting curry and dressing in those harem dresses! We should just close the fucking door. Put up a sign that says, ‘Please Go Away, America Is Full.’ I hope they deport that fucker and his wife on their flying carpet!”
“You’re talking like a Dotbuster, Andrea.”
“Maybe they’re just saying what everyone else is thinking.”
“Do you support the KKK, too?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I touched my wallet and asked her, “Why do you want to buy me a suit, Andrea?”
“Aw, it’s from Michael. You know, it says you worked at his hamburger stand, he wants you to look good. Not that we pay you well, but, you know. You’re an employee, so you’re sort of family.”
“Howard was family, too, right?”
“Michael is taking care of part of the burial expenses. You know they found Howard’s dad in Florida? He was completely broke and he hadn’t talked to Howard in years. He’s trying to get the court to give him Howard’s bank account.”
“Did you have to get Howard a suit, too?”
“Did you get him a suit, too?”
“You know it was a closed-casket funeral, Mr. Funnyman.”
“I was in jail when it happened, Andrea.”
“Oh, that’s right. Well, it was a nice service.”
She took me to the Men’s Wearhouse at the Freehold Raceway Mall. I got two suits, one black and the other dark blue. She insisted that I get a matching handkerchief for each, although I thought it made me look like Ricky Ricardo. They seemed to know her there, and the tailor made all the adjustments in minutes even though there was a sign that said tailoring would take a week.
Andrea wanted to go see a race across the street at the raceway, but it was shut down. They didn’t have racing in the summer because it was too hot for the horses, and it didn’t come back until late-August–a week away.
We looked through the plastic slats in the chain-link fence and saw an old riding lawnmower parked on the dirt of the track. The metal seat had rusted to the same color as the soil. The suit hangers were biting down into my hand, so I hooked them onto the fence and rubbed the grooves in my palm.
“Think that thing even works?” Andrea asked.
“Of course it works. They wouldn’t drag it out there if it didn’t work.”
“It looks like a stagecoach after the Indians burned it.”
“You don’t know what a stagecoach looks like.”
For whatever reason, that set her off.
“Fuck you, Sean! Don’t tell me what I know! I went to college!”
“Well, you didn’t fucking finish, did you?”
“I went for a year!”
“Yeah? Well, unlike you, I didn’t want to pretend that I could do it! Anyway, I knew I couldn’t pay for it!”
“No, it sucks to be a greasy fucking Guinea bitch.”
She stalked off. Over her shoulder, she yelled, “I’m one-eighth Indian, that’s how I know stagecoaches! Now go pick me some potatoes, ya mick bastard!”
“You don’t pick potatoes–you dig them up.”
“You’re corroded, Sean!”
Andrea went across the road.
There’s a certain kind of walk a woman does when she’s had enough. She puts her heels down first and turns her feet out like a duck. Her upper body takes the form of two elbows pumping. You’ll never see her happy face again and she’ll duck you at the mall.
Andrea hopped in the car and swung it onto the highway in no time. I think she gave me the finger but there was a glare on the window and I wasn’t sure.
I sat down and leaned against the fence where my suits were flapping in the wind. Right there under the spikes of the bottom of the fence was a book of matches, half of it torn out. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I took out a cigarette that I had bummed from the Men’s Wearhouse fitting-room girl and lit it. It was one of the best non-pot smokes I ever had. When I finished, I picked up my suits and walked down the road to the bus stop. When I got there I only had to wait about 15 minutes.
(Part 20 next week.)