I really prefer to avoid being around people if it’s at all possible. I’ve been working a second-shift job for the last three years, so I’ve found that it gets easier to avoid people all of the time. “Open Late” drive-thrus are really great, even better than twenty-four hour department stores. When Meijer’s first came to town, people were surprised that it was open all night, and a lot of people seemed to go there just for the novelty of it. There was a lull when the novelty had worn off, but lately the number of late-night shoppers has been slowly growing. It’s probably a lot of people like me, who get uncomfortable when there are lots of people milling around, giving weird looks and buying stupid shit. It’s a college town, so during the school year, there are quite a few students around doing shopping for their dorms and frat parties and shit, but just as many people leave town for the summer as stay, so it gets easier to shop then. And there are like three of the twenty-four hour stores in town now, so I usually just go to whichever one has the fewest cars in the lot. Sometimes that means driving through the lots of all three, only to go back to the first, but it’s not too bad. I’m sure all of the stores don’t hire union labor and buy a lot of their shit from sweatshops or whatever, but if that’s what it takes so I can avoid all the people who are out during the day, I guess I can get over it.
I went to the Super Wal-Mart one night after driving through the parking lots of the other two stores. The one I ended up going to was pretty far out of the way, a mile or two south of the main part of the city. There wasn’t more than a half dozen cars in the lot; there had been somewhere between ten and twenty cars at Meijer’s and Super K-Mart. Of course, it still would’ve been nothing like going to one of those stores during the day, when people stand around and give you funny looks. I don’t like it when people watch me. I got inside Wal-Mart and tried to remember what I needed to buy. I always start off by going to the electronics section to see what sorts of DVDs and CDs they have. I would have time to think about what I needed while I looked around there. Just as I was walking through the scanners at the electronics section, sure as shit, I had to pee. It happens every time I come into these places. It’s better than going to a bookstore or library, where I always end up having to take a shit. Public restrooms are the worst, but I just had to pee and there weren’t too many people around. I’d probably have the bathroom to myself. I walked down the aisles wondering if the guys watching the security cameras at night sit around and talk shit about the customers. They’re probably sitting back there right now, I thought, laughing at me for walking all the way to the electronics section only to turn around and go back to the bathrooms. I was tempted to flip the bird to one of the black plastic globes on the ceiling. I wonder if those guys even really watch the cameras at night. They sure did during the day; I had come to one of these stores with some friends in high school to steal CDs and shit, and just as we got to the door, a couple of guys grabbed my friends and searched them. I was lucky—they didn’t have the CD I wanted.
I walked into the bathroom and headed for the urinals. Making my way to the last urinal, I saw someone’s feet, pants around the ankles, under the first stall. I was screwed. If I could pee fast, I would be able to get out of there before the dude even made it out of the stall, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I took the middle urinal so the guy wouldn’t be able to see my feet, and I stood there, waiting. Come on, pee, I commanded myself. It wasn’t working. The guy in the stall grunted. Motherfucker, I just want to pee and get out of here. I wondered if he heard me walk in. Maybe I should just go out and wait for him to leave. I stood there, trying to concentrate, when I heard him flush. Great, he’s going to walk out and see me standing here at the urinal, not peeing. He walked out and I stared at the wall in front of me. Don’t look over; don’t look over. I looked over when he got to the sink. He nodded at me. I mumbled an attempt at “how you doing,” but it probably just sounded like I was coughing or something. God, he probably thought I was a fucking idiot. Just wash your hands and leave, goddammit. He finally left and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pee. I flushed the urinal anyway and just left. Whatever I needed, cat food probably, was going to have to wait. Motherfucking public restroom. I didn’t even feel like I had to pee anymore.
I went ahead and stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home. I just get their double cheeseburgers most of the time. They screwed up bad when they put them on the dollar menu. I could go there with four dollars and get three plain double cheeseburgers—a satisfying meal. I don’t like getting all of the other crap on there, and I don’t like drinking soda with them. The burgers have a good flavor, and all of that extra stuff ruins it. Sometimes the cheeseburgers are a little too greasy; other times they put too much of the seasoning on them. If I go to the same McDonald’s at the same time of the night, they’re usually just right. Enough grease so that it drips on the paper, but not so much that it drips on my pants. And enough of the seasoning that I can taste it, but not too much so I feel like I need something to drink afterwards.
My brother, the vegan, always gives me a lot of shit for eating at those places. He tells me that I’d probably lose weight if I didn’t eat garbage all the time, but if it means not being a self-righteous prick like him, I’ll stay fat. He went vegan when he was a sophomore in college, and we were about the same size back then, each weighing in around two-twenty. I’d been a senior in high school then, and I didn’t end up going to college for long. I took classes at the University for like three semesters before deciding that I wasn’t all that into it. I hadn’t picked a major and I was getting really tired of all the classes that would never have anything to do with whatever I want to do with my life. Anyway, he just graduated with a degree in plant biology, and all he does is work at a stupid organic co-op, and he doesn’t seem to want to look for a real job. Good thing he took out so many student loans, asshole. He probably weighs like one-sixty or one-seventy now, and I’m up to two-sixty, but I’m a good five or six inches taller, too.
I’m sure I’d lose some of this weight if I wasn’t working with SEO marketing, but it pays the bills okay, so I’m gonna stick with it for now. Especially since I don’t have to deal with people face-to-face. People are so much easier to deal with over the phone. Sometimes people cop an attitude about being called in the middle of the evening, but if I get straight into telling them why I’m calling, they usually come around. I wouldn’t want to be the type of telemarketer who sells magazines or other garbage. We call and solicit contributions to charitable organizations, and people usually like the idea of trying to help out. The ones who don’t want to give anything feel bad enough about it that they don’t want to give me a hard time for calling them during dinner.
My co-workers can’t fuck with me too much because we have separated cubicles. All I have to do is call the numbers on my screen and talk people out of their credit card numbers. I even get to smoke a cigarette every hour by giving up my lunch break, and the supervisors are lenient about letting me smoke two if I want to. I usually wait until I see people coming back from cigarette breaks before I go out. Once in a while someone comes out when I’m smoking and I have to make small talk with them. One of the guys who’s come out a couple of times is pretty nice, but he’s always pressuring me to take my cigarette breaks with everyone else or come to some of the parties they have on weekends. A lot of the people who work there are college students and only work two or three days a week. I know that if I went out with all of them, people would just push for personal information or make smart-ass comments about my weight or the fact that I’m not in school. I don’t want to deal with that shit.
I was ready to pee by the time I made it home with my McDonald’s, and I pressed the play button on the answering machine as I danced my way into the bathroom, trying to hold it until I got my pants unzipped. I sighed in relief as I try to hear the answering machine. It sounded like my brother Will. We were supposed to go to lunch with Mom the next day. There was really only one place where he could get his vegan garbage and I could dine on seared mammal flesh. It’s a pain in the ass to go there, but I know Mom gets worried about us if she doesn’t have lunch with us once a month. I set my alarm for eleven in the morning and went to bed, experiencing the monthly frustration of knowing that I’d have to get out of bed early.
“What’s up, Curt,” he greeted me getting into my car. “Where are we having lunch?”
“Where else,” I mumbled, looking to the left to see if I was good to pull out of the parking lot and onto the street. I drove toward the “Smart Heart Café.” I never would’ve thought that I’d find something good to eat in a place with a name like that, but I found something that would work for me when Will forced me to go there with him a year or two ago. They serve omelets made with low-cholesterol egg-substitute, but it turns out that you can get real eggs by request. The waitresses there always give me dirty looks, because I ask for the real eggs, and I ask them to use real butter to cook the omelet instead of cooking spray. If that wasn’t enough, I always have to ask for butter too, so that I can choke down their dry-ass “extra-lean low-cholesterol” sausage links. I sometimes ask if the sausages are tofu, just to see if one of them will slip up and admit that real meat couldn’t taste that bad. They keep their stories straight and always give me their spiel about free-range pigs that do cardiovascular exercises, or whatever it is they say to justify serving sausage links in a heart-friendly restaurant.
“You know, you could be a little more open-minded about taking care of yourself. You could end up like Grandpa or Uncle Jeff, if you’re not careful,” he started. I’d heard the same lecture half a dozen times in as many months. “Our family doesn’t have the kind of hearts that can take the way you eat.” At least he was coming up with new ways to say the same old shit.
“Come on, man. None of them probably had a heart as big as mine,” I joked. It was true; they were a lot smaller than I am. “Besides, they drank all the time. I probably haven’t been drunk twice since my twenty-first.” I’m twenty-three now, and I’m sure that getting drunk once a year isn’t going to do any harm that my body won’t overcome. “Besides, it’s not like it makes that big a difference, anymore, whether you’re fit or not. Unless you’re trying to hook up with someone. Strippers and porn are happy to take my money no matter how much I weigh, so why would I want to go to all the trouble to lose a hundred pounds to give my money to some chick who’d probably dump me if I forgot to buy her flowers?”
“Strippers and porn don’t put someone in your bed with you at night, do they?” he asked. He knew plenty about having people in his bed, ever since he’d been working at that co-op full-time, he’d been on and off with all sorts of hippy girls.
“Why, so they can steal the covers and kick me and leave my pillow smelling like patchouli? No thanks, Will. I’ll do the job just as good, or better, myself, and then I don’t gotta worry about making breakfast for anyone,” I fired back. I was starting to get mad. He can’t get over this idea that everybody wants to have somebody. He tried for a couple of months to get me to go out with some girl he worked with, probably a fatty, and I tried to get it into his head that I couldn’t give a shit less about hooking up, whether it was for twenty minutes or twenty years. I have a hard enough time dealing with him, Mom, and the people I work with, let alone some companion who’d want all sorts of shit from me.
“Whatever, Curt. Don’t miss the turn,” he said.
“Yeah, I see it. You wanna drive, buy a car,” I said, pulling into the lot. I parked next to Mom’s car and we walked into the restaurant together.
We spotted Mom sitting at a table on the right side of the restaurant, toward the back. The place was pretty busy, and I had to walk past all of these tables of people, squeezing in between chairs and brushing up against people. I must’ve said “excuse me” seven or eight times before I finally made it to my seat. The fucking people were probably looking at me as I walked past, but I kept my eyes on our table. Will had a smirk on his face when I sat down, and I wasn’t sure why, but I mouthed “fuck you” to him when Mom wasn’t looking.
“The waitress was just here; I hope she doesn’t take a long time to come back,” Mom said, trying to spot our waitress. “How are you boys doing?”
“Work’s been crazy-busy, lately,” Will said. I knew I could count on him to take care of the conversation. I looked through the menu to see if I’d missed something before, or if maybe they’d added some dish with substance to it since the last time I’d come. I was disappointed as usual, and geared myself up to explain the order to the waitress. Mom and Will were talking about the co-op still, and I looked around, trying to figure out if we were going to have a waitress who’d served us before or somebody new. I hated trying to explain my order to new waitresses; they would raise their eyebrows at me while I explained things, and they wouldn’t bother writing any of it down. They’d look around the restaurant after I finished my order, like they were looking for someone who would come tell me to fuck off. I’d have to explain nicely that I placed the same order all the time; I knew they could do it my way. I was relieved when one of our regular waitresses approached the table.
“How ‘bout for you, hon,” she asked when she’d taken down Mom’s and Will’s orders. “You get that special order, don’t you,” she smiled.
“Um, yeah. The ham omelet. Extra portion of ham and cheddar cheese, with real eggs, not the fake ones. And make sure they use three eggs? Cook it in butter, not spray. An order of sausage links on the side, and can you make sure they aren’t too dried-out?”
“Did you want that with the toast, or some granola?”
“Oh yeah, toast, please. White, buttered.” This was the only restaurant that I’d ever been in that didn’t butter your toast unless you asked.
“Something to drink, doll?” she asked, still scribbling furiously on her notebook.
“A glass of whole milk with the meal, please, and some coffee right now.”
“I might have to check on the milk, okay? But I’ll be right back with your coffee,” she smiled. She sure was a nice waitress, one of the few in the place.
“You know, it’d make lot more sense if you had breakfast before meeting with us,” Will said, “it’d make it a lot easier for you, and you could eat all of the real meat you wanted. You know that stuff they’re giving you isn’t real meat, right?” he chided.
“Fuck you. And it is real, they just take all of the good stuff out of it.”
“We don’t need that language here, Curt,” Mom said casually, taking a drink of her orange juice.
“I mean it, those sausages are soy-based,” he went on. “We started getting them at the co-op. And they’re organic, too, so you’re not even getting any of those pesticides or preservatives you love so much,” he said, grinning wide. I stood up and he flinched a bit, so I faked like I was going to throw a punch before walking past him to a little stand where people put their newspapers when they were done with them. He held out his hand, middle finger extended, as I walked past. I returned to my seat and looked through the front page as the two of them talked about family or politics, or family politics. Mom always ends up talking about the same things, and Will knows everything about everything, so I don’t even pretend to be interested in the conversation anymore.
Once or twice, when Will couldn’t make it for lunch with us, Mom and I went out by ourselves. She did most of the talking, but she’d also ask me how things were going. She liked to ask when I would be signing up for classes again and whether or not I still wanted to go into medicine. I tell her every time she asks me; I haven’t wanted to go into medicine since I was seven. I asked for a Fisher-Price medicine kit and she’s thought I wanted to be a doctor ever since. Sometimes she talks about what Dad was like before he left. Apparently he thought a lot about going into medicine when he and Mom met in college. She was studying nursing and graduated the same year they started dating. He ended up moving in with her and then dropped out of school. She worked full-time and he smoked a lot of pot and partied with his college buddies. They graduated and moved away, so he started driving a truck. They never got married, and when I was eight, Dad left for a run to Ohio and didn’t come back. Mom always seemed so sad after that, and anymore she just seems disconnected. The last time we ate lunch together, she asked if I still wanted a class ring. I’d been out of high school for at least three years.
I considered going outside for a cigarette, but the last time we’d come, one of the waitresses came out and asked me to go stand in front of the neighboring store because I was “offending” the customers. They can’t stand to see someone enjoying themselves, I responded, dropping the cigarette on the sidewalk and stepping on it. Usually I put the cigarette out and put the butt in the trash somewhere, but I wanted to leave them a reminder that they’d spoiled my few moments of pleasure. I wouldn’t even bother trying to smoke here anymore.
I glanced through the obituaries in the local section, checking the ages. I liked to speculate about how people had died, but old people were no fun for that. They died because they were old. I’d always find the youngest person and try to see if there were any clues in the obituary. Sometimes they would say that donations could be made in the name of the deceased to the leukemia foundation, the motocross club, or the skydiver’s association. Those were easy ones. I took a drink of my coffee and realized I’d forgotten to add cream. Er. CreamER they had here. Goddammit.
After lunch, we walked Mom slowly back to her car, listening to her talk about the cats as we did. Her silly cats…she had like eight of them or something. And there was always some sort of drama between them. I hugged her good-bye before Will and I walked back to my car. I lit a cigarette before starting the car.
“Fucking smoker,” he said, rolling his window halfway down. “Let me get a couple of drags,” he added, after a pause. I passed him the cigarette and he took a couple of slow drags. He gave a little cough as he handed the cigarette back to me. We arrived at the co-op a few minutes later. “Alright dude, take it easy, huh?” he said, holding out his fist. I made a fist and hit his.
“Yeah, man. Have fun with your hairy-pit bitches,” I laughed.
“Whatever dude, I make them shave that shit if they’re gonna get with me! Peace.”
I put in Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral” when he got out, cranking the volume for track one. The track has great heavy riffs. I jammed out on the way back to the apartment.
When I made it back to my apartment, I started quickly up the wooden stairs. It was the type of staircase that they put on the side of a house when they split it up into apartments. They were a little rickety, but not too bad, though I had to be careful when it was wet, ‘cause they’d get pretty slippery. I was going up them pretty quickly that day, until I got about three-quarters up. I had to stop. Then I started to feel it. Thud. Thud. I could feel my heartbeats just behind my ears. They were far apart, and my fingers went numb. The edges of my vision were fluttering, closing in. My skin was cold, all of a sudden, but it felt like I was sweating. I tried to squeeze the railing as hard as I could, but I felt like my hand wasn’t closing. My mind was racing. Could this be it? It was as though I could feel myself being pulled away from my body. I was terrified, but it was invigorating. I felt like my entire body was going numb, so I might not have been able to tell, but I would swear that I nearly got a hard-on when I felt like I was just about to blink out. I could still see, though, I was staring at a cigarette butt at the top of the steps. I couldn’t see anything else, but I was concentrating on keeping that in my vision. Thud. Thud. Thud. It started to pick up pace again, each beat feeling like it could make my neck burst. I closed my eyes slowly, opening them again to see that my vision was coming back. I turned myself around, still gripping the railing, and set myself down gently on the step I was on. I took my hand off the railing and held it out in front of me. I was getting back to normal. I looked out at the street and watched the cars pass by. I pulled out my cigarettes and lit one up as I soaked up the afternoon sun.