published in Volume 2, Issue 1 on January 20th, 1995
I was stumbling back from the Wheelbarrow when the phone rang.
"They just fired that dope Dunn," Marty said.
Marty and I used to be drinking buddies, but ever since he got the job at the local newspaper office, I've been drinking a lonely bottle. Marty was working as a janitor while I was collecting unemployment.
"Who's Dunn?" I asked.
"The dope that cleaned the first ten floors."
Then I realized what Marty was actually trying to tell me.
"I was head janitor of that motel, Marty, remember?"
"You were the only janitor."
It was an easy job and the pay was good. Twenty floors, about twenty rooms each floor, and split between the two of us, that meant something like two hundred garbage cans each. Most of the garbage was crumpled up paper, so it wasn't too disgusting. The lounges on each floor were probably the roughest, each having a tall garbage can with food, coffee grounds, and everything else. But since we cleaned up each weekday, it was only a few hours old and didn't stink. Mondays were probably the worst because some people worked during the weekends and left banana peels and half-eaten yogurts in their wastebaskets, but even that wasn't a big deal. Compared to some of the other jobs I'd held, this one was heaven.
We had to sweep, but we didn't have to mop or clean the bathrooms. All that was done by a tiny, white-haired Polish lady who didn't speak a word of English except for "Hello" and "Goodbye."
Marty cleaned floors eleven and up while I took care of ten and down. My favorite room was the corner office on the seventh floor because it had a big view of the seaport, and because it was summertime, the sun would set around eight o'clock and I would be right there for it. When it was a beautiful sunset, I would stop everything, sit in that big leather chair, prop my feet up on that huge desk -- and just take it all in. It was a shame, I thought, that the neckties who worked in these offices never got to see these sunsets.
When done, I would roll my garbage can back into the little cubbyhole in the basement, go up to the main lobby, and have a smoke outside. After the first week, I always finished before Marty, not by much, maybe five minutes at the most. I wasn't trying to show him off or anything. That was just the way things were.
After work, Marty and I would cruise on over to the Wheelbarrow for a couple of beers. We were drinking buddies again.
But then things started to go a little strange. I was finishing way earlier than Marty, sometimes by half an hour. It wasn't that I was working any faster; it was Marty who was working slower. I had first thought that it was just that Tuesday, but when it continued on for a week, I thought maybe something was wrong. Maybe there was another bunch of rooms that had opened up (some offices were empty one day then occupied the next), or maybe another lounge. I didn't ask Marty about it because, well, to tell you the truth, I had a feeling it was going to be bad news.
But when Friday rolled around, I finished up and decided to take the elevator up to the eighteen floor to find out exactly what was going on. I took a quick look around, but he wasn't anywhere. I climbed the stairs and got to the nineteenth floor.
And there I found him in an office, the office of Brad Eyestone, Editor of Arts and Entertainment, staring at the pictures on the walls.
He didn't hear me and I didn't say anything. Standing there at the door, looking at Marty looking at these pictures, I was afraid. He scratched his beard every now and then, but he never took his eyes off the pictures. He was absolutely still, hypnotized by whatever he saw. What I saw were family photos of the Eyestones. The one on the far right wall was a picture of a good-looking man, a pretty woman, and two kids in a boat, a boy and a girl. The man and the boy were both holding onto a big fish, probably a tuna.
Marty still hadn't noticed that I was in the room with him, so I snuck out a couple of feet, started whistling "Oh Suzanna," and yelled out Marty's name.
"I'm almost done," he said from the office, and came out rolling the garbage can.
"What took you so long?" I said. "The Wheelbarrow ain't gonna wait up for us, you know."
"Just doing some extra cleaning," he said.
I supposed it was something he didn't want to talk about. Maybe Eyestone's kids reminded Marty of his kids, but then I remembered that he didn't have any. He hadn't been married and I was pretty sure he hadn't gotten any girl in trouble when he was younger.
I guess I could have asked him about it, but I didn't. I figured that if he wanted to talk about it, he would.
Actually, I think he did tell me. He babbled about a lot of things at the Wheelbarrow, but afterwards, I couldn't remember a thing. We both got very drunk that night.
So I thought about telling all this to Jackie, but we were having problems.
Jackie and I saw each other pretty much every day. It was obvious that neither of us had many friends, but it was more than that. When we had first met at the Wheelbarrow, we thought we were wrong for each other. That night, I told her she thought too much and she told me I didn't think enough. We laughed, shook hands, and agreed to be friends for as long as we were drunk.
But now -- now we were used to each other. It was getting harder for her to leave my place or for me to leave her place, and that was making the whole thing weird.
Maybe sex was the answer. Neither of us had any in a long time. But according to Jackie, "that is the short-term answer to a potentially long-term problem." She always had words like that, advice- words, I called them.
So maybe we were in love and maybe we weren't. Or maybe I was in love and she was just lonely. I don't know. My life at the time was full of problems.
But anyway, I went over to her place that night after the Wheelbarrow, very drunk but still able to steer my van for a mile and a half to tell her about Marty and his pictures when she said: "We have to talk, buddy. We have to."
So I listened and she talked, about how she was feeling uncomfortable. I told her that I was drunk, but that didn't stop her.
"I don't know what to do," she finally said. We were both sitting on the couch. "We've become such good friends."
She had on a long flannel shirt that ran a little short of her knees, knees that were hugged by a pair of black leggings, ankles that were surrounded by thick, red socks. Her face was a little pale, but that made her rust-brown hair all the more rusty.
At that point I grabbed her by the shoulder, pinned her down on the cushions, and started kissing her all over.
"Oh Jesus," she said, pushing me off with her legs. I fell off the couch and banged my head against the coffee table. I shook my head. The pain was something else.
"Oh Jesus," I said, rubbing the side of my head. I could already feel the wound. "That really hurt."
Jackie cradled her legs and balled herself away from me. "Maybe you better leave," she said. She didn't sound mean; she just sounded exhausted.
"All right," I said, and got up.
"Can you make it home?"
I nodded and left. The pain did wake me up, and driving home semi-drunk wasn't a big deal.
After that night, Marty got better. He wasn't late anymore; in fact, there were a few days when he finished earlier than me. And he seemed brighter, happier, even at the Wheelbarrow, even when he was drunk. I guessed that whatever that had bothered him worked itself out, as I knew it would. Sometimes that's the best way to solve a problem, to just let it go away.
Jackie called me a couple of days later. It was the first time we had spoken since I kissed her and hit my head.
"Hey, guess what. I finally got a job," her fuzzy voice said. A month ago Jackie hadn't known whether she was working at Dunkin' Donuts or at a plumbing parts place as a secretary, so she quit.
"We should celebrate," I said. "I'll buy, I'm in the money."
We went out to a Chinese restaurant and ordered General Tso's chicken and a couple of Tsingtaos. Jackie wore a slinky blue dress with white polkadots. She looked really good, so I looked the other way.
"I know you're thinking about last time," she said, her mouth chewing away at the chicken. Bits of chicken flew out of her mouth as she talked. It got me horny, watching her.
"I was drunk," I said, and sucked on my bottle of Tsingtao.
"It's a bad idea. You and I both know that."
"I guess," I said. "I think we both better find someone, though. And fast."
She raised her bottle of beer. "To that someone else," and we clanged.
We talked about our jobs for the rest of the evening. I told her about my garbage cleaning job, which wasn't the most exciting job around, but she listened anyway. I told her about the corner office on the seventh floor, and I almost told her the Marty-staring-at-pictures bit, but I didn't. Things were fine, things were smooth, there was no reason to bring up things that had nothing to do with anything.
How Jackie got her job, or jobs, was quite a story. She saw in the classifieds that somebody needed a nanny of sorts -- "a glorified babysitter," she told me -- and since she did like kids, she went after it.
"Gorgeous place," she said, chomping on a drumstick. "It wasn't a really big house but it was so nicely decorated. The place looked bigger from the inside than the outside, you know? This lady, Michelle, she knew what she was doing. Fluffy drapes and the whole nine yards." Michelle hired her on the spot.
"The kids are totally adorable and very well behaved," she said. "I don't even know what I'm supposed to do, you know? It's not like I have to keep an eye on them. The boy, Christian, is four and the girl is three, Melissa. Cutest things you've ever seen."
The only part of the house that seemed to worry Michelle was the basement, so she took Jackie down there. "I don't want the kids to be in here," Michelle had told her. And there Jackie got her second job.
"You wouldn't believe the set-up they had. Radial arm saw, table saw, a full-sized lathe, disc sander, drill press, planer -- I mean this place had more equipment than the shop I worked at." Jackie, all by herself, had made the table that I banged my head against a few nights ago. Although she never had formal training for carpentry, she was pretty good with her hands.
When Michelle saw Jackie's eyes light up, she asked her if she knew anything about woodworking because they were looking for someone to make them a couple of pieces of furniture -- children's furniture. She told Jackie that it was important for both her husband and herself that their children have "significant memories, tangible things that they could call their childhood." Her husband had wanted to do it himself, but work had taken over his life. It seemed all very hokey to me, but Jackie seemed to understand.
"If you saw these kids, you'd want the exact same thing, I tell you. You wouldn't ever want to see these angels grow up," she said. So right now she was all into making a desk for the boy. She worked in the basement in the mornings and took care of the kids after school until dinnertime.
"They're paying me pretty good," she said.
"So dinner's on you next time," I said.
Life was plain and sometimes even boring, but it was good. When your ex-wife isn't hounding you for alimony, when you don't get laid off and you do get laid, then life is what I call good. I was earning enough money to send the checks to my ex, Marty and I were working enough to not get fired, Jackie was having a great old time at her job, and I finally found a girl to sleep with me.
She was kind of fat -- pudgy, I guess you could say. Nothing to look at, a plain and usual face, but those are the kind of women who are the easiest. The ugly ones get laid all the time because everybody thinks they're easy and the good-looking ones get laid all the time because they're so good looking. I keep my eyes open for the middle-of-the-row ones.
You couldn't get much more middle than Sarah. She was middle class, had medium-sized breasts, had a ring on her middle finger, and preferred her steaks cooked medium. Although neither of us were very serious, I was happy and she was happy.
It was a good time. I couldn't remember life being this fine for me and everybody else I cared about, so I wasn't stupid about it. This kind of happiness-across-the-board doesn't happen too often, so I remembered and enjoyed every moment (and I barely drank). Because sooner or later, things were going to fall apart.
"I got fired," Marty told me at the Wheelbarrow. I knew that already because I had seen a guy with a glass eye, Jimbo, introducing himself to me at work. It was Wednesday, a sweatshirt night in September. Winter was around the corner.
"How the hell did that happen?" I asked.
He looked down into the bottle of Bud and said, "Didn't do such a good job, I guess."
"Yeah," I said.
Then we drank for a while in silence. Marty worked at peeling the label from the bottle.
"What are you going to do?" I asked him.
"Don't know. The classifieds probably have something or another. If not now, then maybe in a couple of weeks."
"It had something to do with those pictures, didn't it?" I asked him. I didn't want to sound accusing, but I think it came out that way. I was mad at myself; if I had asked him about it that time, maybe he would still have a job.
He didn't say anything for a long time. I drank up and avoided looking at him until he pulled a messy piece of paper from his back pocket and laid it on the table. He unfolded it and ran his hand over it to flatten out the creases. It was the picture with Eyestone and his kid holding the fish.
"You stole the picture? You stole the fucking picture? Jesus! Didn't you think he would notice?"
Marty just sat there and stared at the picture. "Look at it," he said, pushing it toward me. "Look at it."
"I've already seen it," I said, pushing it back. "What the hell?"
"I had to take it."
I gulped my beer and stared him down.
"It's perfect, don't you see? This guy's got what I don't have, what I'm never going to have. This guy's handsome, he's got family, got kids, it's just..."
I didn't know what to say. I'd never seen him like this before. "I don't understand," I said. "What's so perfect about this picture? About him and his wife and his kids?"
"I don't know," Marty said. "If I knew I would tell you, don't you think?" He quickly folded the picture back up.
"So they fired you for taking that picture?"
"Yeah," he said.
"I took more than that," he said, looking at the beer again. "Took some other pictures," he said.
"That is the...forget it. Let's just forget the whole thing," I said.
"I can't work there anymore," Jackie said. We were in her kitchen, having some coffee.
"Why not? The kids are wonderful, you're working with wood."
"It's so depressing," she said, blowing the coffee to cool it. "You look at those kids and..."
"I don't know. They're so perfect."
"What do you mean they're per..." That's when I put it together. "Wait wait wait. Who do you work for?"
"Michelle, I told you."
"Eyestone. Michelle Eyestone. What's the sudden fascination with my boss?"
"So you say they get you depressed because they're so perfect, because they have a family, they have money, they have spankin' beautiful kids," I said.
"Yeah, you could say that."
"But you can't put it in words if you really had to."
"Hey, you reading my diary or something?"
"Don't have to," I said. "Remember my friend Marty that I sometimes talk to you about?"
"Sure, the guy who got fired last week?"
"Yeah, him," I said, and smiled. "I think you two should meet."
At first, I thought it was a mistake. Marty and Jackie were very different people. They weren't exactly made for each other -- Marty's dream woman was a Southern belle, not a tomboy. And Jackie's was "a criminal defense lawyer with broad shoulders," not some skinny janitor.
But see, this business with the Eyestones was just plain fucking weird. You had to be there. If you had talked to both of them and listened to how they thought about the Eyestones, you'd thought that they were the same people. It was like fate. No, it was fate. If I hadn't brought them together, something else eventually would have.
But I'll admit it; my real fear was for me. These two people were the closest thing to a family I had, and once they got together, I had a feeling that I wasn't going to be needed any more.
And that's exactly what happened. They were very happy and excited and spent a whole lot of time together. Marty and I still drank after work, Jackie and I still talked on the phone, but things were different. When they talked to me, they talked about nothing but each other. So in a way, I was in the center and not in the background -- but at the same time I wasn't. It was complicated, I guess.
And to make things worse, Sarah dumped me for some other guy. He told her that he was a doctor, a gynecologist. She wasn't the brightest, let's just say that. "I hope you're not mad, but Pierce is a wonderful man." Pierce! And she thought that was his real name? A guy named Pierce, a doctor, hanging around in a scumpit like the Wheelbarrow until last call? I wasn't mad that she left me; I was mad that she was so fucking stupid.
So this probably sounds like a whole bunch of bad things and I was really depressed. But really? I wasn't all that unhappy. Around that time, when things were falling apart around me, my mind was on something else.
My mind was on Brad. Michelle. Christian. Melissa.
My mind was on the Eyestones.
Because Jimbo had a slight limp, he asked me if I could take floors eleven to twenty. I didn't quite get it because we used elevators to go up and down, but I didn't want to argue. Jimbo wasn't all right in the head and that glass eye of his made me nervous, the way it swam all over the place.
Now that I was in charge of the top ten floors, I had Brad Eyestone's office. Every time I cleaned that office, I think I sort of saw what Marty had seen. There were new pictures on the walls now and all of them were beautiful, as if those pictures were the ones that had come with the frames.
I didn't want to take any of them, but I was spending more and more time in his office. I could tell because Jimbo, who used to finish after me, was gone by the time I rolled my garbage can back into the cubbyhole.
But anyhow, things were sort of back to normal. I was shifted up ten floors and maybe lingered in Eyestone's office a little bit, but I was still meeting up with Marty at the Wheelbarrow after work (he got a job at the downtown warehouse) and everybody was getting along.
Then one day I actually saw him, Brad Eyestone, in his office.
I saw him but he didn't see me. He must have been working late because paper was strewn all over the place. In person he was even better looking. He looked bigger.
I thought about introducing myself and going in with my garbage can when the phone rang.
"Eyestone here. Hello, Em. Yeah. Yeah." End of conversation.
Em, which probably meant Michelle, his wife. I quietly rolled my garbage can away and took it back to the basement -- and waited outside.
I was on my second cigarette when a fancy blue car pulled up in front of the building. She wasn't Michelle Eyestone, but she was a pretty good looker herself. She had that slutty look about herself, dirty, the kind of women I sort of like if they're brunettes, but this one was a bleached blonde. She gave me a fake smile and went into the building, her heels clicking and clacking against the linoleum floor.
When her elevator started climbing, I jumped in the other one and followed. She would be slightly ahead of me, which was exactly what I wanted.
When I reached the nineteenth floor and Eyestone's office, the door was closed. But there were people in there.
The walls were thin so I could hear just about anything above a whisper, but they weren't whispering anything. It took them about two minutes before they were going at it, thumping and groaning like mad. I could tell that she was a screamer because her moans and groans came out like there was a hand over her mouth. They had to be careful; Eyestone wasn't the only one I saw in his office that night. Listening to them may have gotten a few guys hard, but it didn't do anything for me. I was hearing them screw, but I wasn't really listening.
I sat in the dark hallway for at least half an hour. Then they stopped, and for a while there was silence. I lit up a cigarette and then put it out, remembering that nobody was allowed to smoke inside the building.
So they weren't so perfect after all, I thought, giggling to myself. Pictures may say a thousand words, but catching a few moans outside someone's office was just as telling, if not more.
"How's Michelle," Em said like she was mad.
"Do you always have to ask that?" Eyestone said.
"Jesus, you're on the edge."
"I went to see Dr. Prasad today. That's why I had to work late," he said. I heard the zip of a zipper and the snap of a button, an evening quickie coming to an end.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"You're not going to have to worry about getting pregnant, Em," he said, and laughed a little. "Fuck your little dial of pills, fuck fuck fuck," he said.
"You mean..." she trailed off. Then he started crying. "Oh baby, don't cry," she said. "Don't cry."
At first I couldn't figure out what he was saying through his tears; it sounded like "Mean Michelle bought." But after the third time he said it, I realized what it was. "Me and Michelle both," Brad Eyestone was saying.
Me and Michelle both. Both of them were out of luck. How do you like that?
Last night Marty stopped by to say hello. We talked about, who else, Jackie. I asked him about the pictures he stole. He told me that he didn't need them anymore, so he went to my kitchen garbage and dropped the picture that he carried around in his pocket, as if to prove his full recovery.
Right after Marty left, I dug the picture out of the trash. After I wiped off some spaghetti sauce and a couple of potato peels, the picture was in good shape. I rinsed it off and smoothed it out on the table.
Brad Eyestone, a beautiful, dark-haired man who should be a movie star, eyes so blue that they stood out even when surrounded by miles and miles of ocean. Christian Eyestone, an angel, his youthful blond hair just starting to turn brownish and his blue eyes as bright as his dad's. Michelle Eyestone, almost as tall as her husband, in a bright pink string bikini that showed what Brad had and what everyone else didn't have. In the picture she sat with her legs crossed, her long, red hair flowing down to the middle of her back, her hand holding onto her daughter's hand. Melissa Eyestone, a curly blonde of three, wearing the captain's hat, her hands on the wheel of the boat. That day the wind was a soft breeze -- you could tell from the gentle waves -- and the skies were streamed with strings of clouds.
They were perfect, all right -- but not quite. Anybody could tell. Well, maybe not anybody. Maybe only the people who are looking over and above the picture, maybe only the people who can do that. I'm not saying that I'm somebody special or anything like that. I'm just saying that I was at the right place at the right time. But in any case, you could tell those kids had zero resemblance with the two parents.
"You must be Marty," Michelle says.
"Sure am," I say.
Marty's out of town, visiting his suddenly sick mother in Oklahoma. Jackie finished Christian's desk for the Eyestones and she's deciding whether or not to quit. Seeing the Eyestones and those kids still gets her down, but the pay is good.
Michelle invited Jackie to tonight's dinner a week ago. Jackie was going to go with Marty, but now I'm going with her. She told me that I should pretend to be Marty because that's who she promised Michelle would be at dinner. I didn't argue. Sometimes I don't understand Jackie at all. Marty agrees with me, so I know I'm not alone in this.
It is a beautiful house in every way, the kind of home that you see in all those homemaker magazines. Or the kind you see when you visit apartment models, the ones that agents show around, the ones made up to look as if there is a family living there. But of course there is no family. All they have are hundreds of strangers who come in and out during the day, and at night the house is silent.
I'm wearing a tie and it's making me uncomfortable. My jacket fits but my pants are a little too tight around the crotch. I can't take it back, either, because nobody can argue with that bastard at the thrift store.
Jackie, all dolled up, her hair kind of poofy, looks pretty good under the rainbow lights of the chandelier. She's making talk with Michelle, who sits across from me. Brad is sits at the head, and the kids, Christian and Melissa, are at the corner. I'm looking at the kids, then at Michelle, then at Brad. I do this several times. I look, I peer, I scrutinize.
Adopted. No doubt about it.
I think about telling Jackie and Marty about the Eyestones, but that would probably be a bad thing. Something tells me that I shouldn't, and I probably won't. Things are fine, things are smooth, there's no reason to bring up things that have nothing to do with anything.
"So Marty," Brad says.
"Marty," Brad says again. He's talking to me. I forgot.
"Yes, Brad," I say. He doesn't look so handsome anymore, I'm thinking. He looks old and tired. Every time I look at his face, I imagine him crying in the arms of the bleached blonde Em, saying those four words, Me and Michelle both.
"How's the job?" he asks me.