by Joe Engel
After the bathroom, I sat in my chair, the one passed down by my brother; a tan corduroy armchair, peppered with cigarette burns, that was the closest thing I had to a feeling of home. I watched a line of ants march in order, single file from the baseboard, towards what looked like a discovery of watermelon, sweet enough to please their queen, who must be somewhere on the other side of that wall. My bed was just ten feet away. If I ate a Twinky in bed these insects would infest my sheets. So I kept food and rest separate; a real life test of manners. Just then my upstairs neighbors laughed hysterically in high pitched bursts. It sounded like they were laughing at someone’s torture. I tried not to listen. I had met them once, just a greeting as we passed. I tried not to hone in on their conversations, their words rolling in and out of earshot, so I wouldn’t think they were talking about me.
There was a tickle on my leg and I saw an ant climbing it’s way up through my stands of hair. I flicked it away. I looked around my apartment. Everything that I called mine had been someone else’s before me. The candle holder on top of the TV had been my mother’s; two silver hands cupped up where a candle would fit. It’s placement more use of space than decoration; I didn’t have a candle. I thought of my visit with Matt. I always look for a source of my anxiety but it runs like freezing water through my hands. I can’t imagine having memories like his, definite, leading back to the beginning of some rift. A memory that darkens a regular view of life. I don’t know how deep his affliction might be, but as he said, he was sane, he was able to function and appreciate; to live. I thought of the man who might have done this to him, extending trust like a searing flame. Tears filled my eyes and I sat for a second. I looked at the Mexican blanket hung on my wall, my brother’s in college, it’s bright red and green wool that made my skin rash. It seemed so useless hanging there. I ripped a shoe from my foot and began smashing ants, which left a trail of dead drones back to the wall they came from. I was like Godzilla. I sat back and sighed, more relaxed. The Mexican blanket was fine, I thought, a decoration I can afford. I stood up and looked at the chunk of watermelon. It had flown from my mouth that morning when I coughed. I picked it up and carried it to the toilet with two live ants still clamped to its pulp, and dropped it in. It wobbled down, the ants crawling around at the bottom with air bubbles around their heads. I wanted to watch them drown, but held out my hand and saw them for a moment, marooned on the bottom of the bowl, then touched the cold handle and flushed them down.
I checked the library schedule when I got in to work. Matt was scheduled to work at noon. I clocked in at ten and thought over if I had done anything wrong the night before. I knew I hadn’t, but Matt’s confession had struck me as if I had, as if by witnessing his words I was guilty, as if I should have folded and bended them into a dove and said, “look at how it flies when you let it go.” Instead, I felt like I had watched his heart drop on the table, as I stared at it unequipped.
If I talk at work, it’s usually to make a joke. Today though, I had no humor. I went about filling my cart with books in the stock room. When I would usually stop whimsically to peruse at books on national parks or astronomy, that day I just passed them over and rolled them out to the shelves, quiet as a monk, head bowed, but missing inner peace.
I knew I didn’t know much, and Matt was five years older than me at 28. But I knew I wanted to be good and strong and warm. That was my mantra going forward into life but here I was, trying not to watch the clock tick towards Matt’s shift. I was failing. If my frailty was noticed by my co-workers, I was lucky to be at such a quiet place, unquestioned about my reticence. When I closed my eyes I saw a blast of wind tearing leaves off a tree. The Autumn weather synced exactly.
Matt arrived at noon and immediately made one of the clerks laugh, then went to the break room. I took a few steps in that direction and stopped. He came back out a second later, after, I knew, he had punched the clock. I looked down at a fresh bundle of books, read the call numbers and plucked one down to be shelved. “Realizing your dreams,” was the title. What if you’re trying to forget your dreams? The stacks were wearing me down. I emptied my cart and looked back at the stock room. Matt was energetic as usual, talking to other clerks as he checked out patrons book. Was I the only one here Matt told of his abuse? I pushed the cart back to the stock room through the counter and started restocking the cart. And if I was, was that a curse or an honor? Matt came quickly back to the room just to use the computer. “Hey George,” he said. I felt silence grow in my throat. Then he went back to searching the catalogue on the computer. “Hey,” I uttered
The books looked like they were in the millions. Ten thousand romance novels, five thousand ‘do it yourself’, and 900,000 copies of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”. I imagined how fast the whole place would burn. I wanted to go tap Matt on the shoulder. I imagined him telling me that he was fine, that he was sorry he didn’t give a proper good bye, but he realized he forgot to turn off his stove last night. I imagined him telling me that he was too drunk to remember seeing me. I would tell him I couldn’t tell the difference and he would say he was a good drunk. I imagined him telling me that everybody knows about his step dad. I imagined him telling me that it wasn’t that bad; that people grow. I imagined him telling me it was just a joke.
I punched out without ever approaching him. There were no light goodbyes. I walked past him in the checkout station with a path not wide enough to keep the air free of what we both knew now.
At home, I watched a cockroach run across the floor toward the nearest darkness, then got up and left my apartment.
On the path beside the lake I saw the man with the bag from last night trying to stop a couple as they passed. He still carried the bag. I stood up straight and walked towards him. I hurried. I was confident, nearly jogged in his direction. He saw me and waited, no smile, no emotion to read as I approached, “I remember you,” he said, “Now you’re interested?” I stood looking into his eyes. “I guess this bag was destined for you,” he said. I thought I saw something, a glint maybe, a chuckle, in his eyes.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“You need it,” he said. There it was again, something passing. He extended the bag to me. “Whatever it is.” I looked at the bag. “Take it,” he said.
I took the bag. He smiled, “Good stuff.” He turned and left.
I walked over to a bench in front of the lake and sat down. I unrolled the top of the bag and looked inside. Darkness. I shook it. It made a light sound like paper on paper. I put my hand into the bag, all the way to bottom. It was cold and gave way to the pressure of my hand. I grasped at it and lifted up a handful. It was seeping through my fingers. I pulled it out and looked. It was sand. I laid out my palm and it drifted down to the concrete. I put my hand in the bag again and sifted around. There was nothing else. I pulled out handfuls and let it spill to the ground. I set the bag on the bench and started laughing. I laughed until I was empty.
I sat on the bench and relaxed, smiling out at the lake. The waves crashed up against the levee, shards of orange scattered across the lake from the falling sun. An older man ambled up and stood a few feet away from me. He looked at me with a tired smile and looked out at the lake, resigned to something. Then he looked back at me.
“You seem really happy,” he said, and then looked out at the lake like he was missing something. “How do you do it?”
I shifted positions on the bench.