by Josh Howatt
First round draft. Looking for any advice: creative, technical, what have you.
Only fifteen minutes ago, they were hailing it as the biggest win in lottery history. The channel cuts away to a morbidly obese woman from Alamito, Missouri, sweating and screaming in her living room. It's been nearly a year since she's stood on two feet unassisted, and yet there she is, dancing circles in front of the camera with her beloved daughter, Candy. She takes a moment to pant red-faced into the lens and choke out an acceptance speech. Gripping a Big Gulp in one hand, the winning ticket in the other, and cradling a pint of vanilla Breyer's in her arm like a swaddled infant, she opens with, "If it weren't for little Candy..."
Confetti showers the saran-wrapped couch. The newscasters continue to abuse the word "monumental". Televisions all across America glow with high spirits and promise. Then, in the middle of her impassioned pledge to end world poverty, the gourmand's eyes roll up and she plummets back to Earth like a fallen meteor.
The camera shakes violently upon impact. Meanwhile, the platinum blonde covering the story stands slack-jawed and wide-eyed, with her hands in the air as if under arrest, thus beginning her first and last day with Channel 9.
Little Candy gently pokes the mountain of flesh once known as "Mommy", who is now slowly sinking behind the NY9 logo and into her caving floorboards. This (now former) millionaire has but literally dug her own grave, and the gracious AcuNine team insists on replaying the highlights all morning. Oddly enough, it's very similar to watching one of those controlled skyscraper demolitions. Candy, myself, and nearly a million other viewers watch as Trisha Liddell swandives into her pumpkin, berber carpet. Over and over again. In slow-motion, no less.
Uneasy, I put down my bowl of Cap'n Crunch.
A bleary-eyed vagrant who looks not unlike my roommate, Jerod, straggles out of his room half asleep and fully naked. He watches the story for a moment, holding himself and yawning.
"Man. That is like..." He struggles for the word "sad."
Drained from such lengthy commentary, Jerod slumps into the kitchen. Over a commercial for the next great chewing gum I listen to the glorious sounds of his morning ritual. The crashing of pots and pans. A can cracks opens. Drawers slam. A glass shatters. Thanks to his royal high-ness we are constantly at a never-ending shortage of glassware. Lord knows, there has been many a social gathering in which one humiliated partygoer is left holding a mini-Dixie cup we scrounged up from underneath the bathroom sink.
Jerod and I met through the friend of a friend when I moved to the city four years ago. Couch surfing and fast food had long lost their bohemian appeal, and I was desperate for a place to hang my mass-produced Kandinsky print. Jerod seemed nice enough at first meet. However, in hindsight it becomes all too ironic and telltale that we were to determine our compatibility as roommates in a pub. We might as well have been cuddled up to the in-take window at a methadone clinic. Or at the very least, in a park brown-bagging a forty. I failed to mention that on occasion I forget to recycle. He completely neglected to explain the magnitude of what a novice might refer to as a raging drug habit. It's actually not so much a habit, per se. "Habit", at least in my experience, implies daily routine or blasé tendency, at best. People with habits bite their nails or pick their nose. They might talk to themselves or even curse at ill-opportune times. They do not, however, sleep off a meth bender in the bathtub. They don't wake up in a stairwell to the hysterical Portuguese woman downstairs pounding on their chest. And they most certainly do not call their roommate's mother at 1 A.M. to inform her that her full-grown, adult son is presently masturbating in his room before bed. More than once I've found Jerod on the roof of our loft, sleeping soundly under the stars, and using a Jack Daniels bottle as a pillow.
Now, I must give him credit. This young man has studied long and hard to blossom into the scholar of futility he personifies. He has put in lengthy and physically strenuous hours, sometimes all-nighters, researching the nautical patterns in our toilet bowl. Furthermore, every last cent he earns is spent to further perpetuate his life's work; that is to experience it all, but to remember nothing. When I first came to understand Jerod's passion for inebriant proficiency, like any other sensible and small-framed citizen I was concerned, angered, and most importantly scared. Yet, over the years, I have cultivated the mastery of certain techniques in order to cope with and understand his complex ways. Specifically, avoidance.
And as much as I wish I could pack up and leave this haven of bedlam, the loft itself is too...for lack of a better word, "lofty". You simply cannot find this kind of space in New York City. Not to mention that even though I am totally unable to comprehend it, Jerod has grown on me. Like a life-threatening cancer. Somewhere in that bourbon-soaked heart of his beats a true and kindred soul. One, though unlikely as statistics predict, I hope to know into an old age. That being said, in his - and consequently my own - defense, Jerod does not have a drug habit. He is a misunderstood revolutionary. With a killer apartment.
The whole building now smells of meat, and I'm gagging on the air.
"So, did you ever hear from the landlord about the shower?" Jerod yells through a plume of smoke.
Two days ago, the taps in our bathroom began and continue to spray what Jerod mistook to be Kool-Aid. Evidently, the police found another dismembered body - this one in the building's water tower. That makes three in three months. The authorities informed us that, strictly from a hygenic standpoint we have no need to worry. However, there is an enormous probability that one of our neighbors is the next Dahmer/Gacy hybrid.
"Yeah, he said it should be fixed by this afternoon."
Jerod grunts. Neither of us has showered in nearly seventy-two hours, and I am quickly running out of incense and aftershave. More importantly, Jerod's deodorant stick has long been worn down to the painful, plastic nub, and yesterday I had no choice but to spritz him with Windex in his sleep.
He comes into the living room carrying a platter full of bacon, and wearing nothing but an apron. He sits down on the couch.
"So what's on Jerod's agenda today?"
Well, this morning is just chock full of surprises.
We pause in our intellectual discourse to watch a promo for AcuNine's upcoming segment on killer-bacteria-carrying bees. This evidently triggers a synaptic misfire in Jerod's brain, reminding him to ask me for the rent. However, when navigating through the war zone that used to be his temporal lobe, the neurotransmitters shuffle like a deck of cards, and cascade out of his mouth as:
"Rent you the have Ethan?"
I stare at him dumfounded. The reason is two-fold. One, I am not entirely familiar with this cannabis dialect. And two, the rent check has been pinned to the refrigerator under his "Harley's Malt gives a good time!" magnet for almost a week. Just as it has been every month for the last four, mind-numbing years. In a brief moment of weakness, I devolve to his Cro-Magnon state and point in the direction of the freezer. He squints at me as if trying to solve an algebraic equation. Then after cracking the riddle, he beams with a prideful smile of accomplishment.
He barks small bits of charred, animal gristle out of his mouth and into his nest of a beard. As per routine, these small particles of meat will go unnoticed for weeks until Jerod begins to complain of some mysterious smell of rot, and then finally makes the strained connection to comb them out.
And thus continues the Earth's rotation around the sun.
In today's forecast the weatherman is guessing rain. Though I don't see how that is at all possible, considering the sunlight scorching my cornea through the window. I'm cringing and swatting against the brightness like a creature of the night. Being that Chip and I are supposed to meet in less than an hour, perhaps this is a heaven-sent cue to disembark from the sweat-stained couch. But only after reflecting on the morning's life-enriching events.
Watch a woman croak on national television.
Bond with my botched lobotomy of a roommate.
Yes, I think my day is officially ready to begin here.
I leave Jerod to his breakfast. For a moment, I consider asking for a piece, but decide I would rather continue to have ten fingers. Plus, I'm still trying to lose that post-holiday padding. After a mouthwash rinse and heavy cologne bath, I'm out the door. As I'm locking it behind me, I hear a muffled Nina Simone singing "Feelin' Good" down the hallway. I chuckle and soak up the irony; my mouth tasting like a compost breath mint
Outside, the morning sun is hitting its stride, and the air couldn't be crisper if it was a chilled Granny Smith. The trees on our block have already turned and are just beginning to shed their cherry and sienna veneer. I pass factory warehouses and vintage clothing stores; mattresses, baby clothes and vegan groceries. On one corner an elderly woman is hawking her valuables. She methodically displays them in a row from smallest to largest on a pink bath towel. From what I can quickly make out there is a hairbrush, a couple of magazines with Princess Diana on the cover, three AA batteries, a key, one tennis shoe, and a half-eaten corn muffin that I'm praying is her misplaced breakfast. She kneels on her slab of sidewalk, resituating the merchandise. Out of pity, I peruse the towel and search for anything even slightly practical. She looks up with a smile, pleading. Business must be slow. I settle on a lonely saltshaker in the shape of a rooster for three dollars. I explain to her that after taxes it probably comes to a couple dollars more, and hand her a five. She nods her head in agreement. This beautiful wreckage, these glorious misfortunes, all shape my little neck of the woods in the kingdom that is Brooklyn. This is my home for now. And I couldn't be happier.
I inhale the morning, and crunch through a layer of dead leaves that will too soon be replaced by patches of life-threatening ice. It is official. After a valiant attempt to hold off the New York frost, autumn has been raped of her soft-spoken allure. And is slowly passing the torch to what feels may be doomed as a frigid winter. A gale wind sweeps across my face. The trees shiver.
I round the corner and cut through a backstreet, trying to make up for lost time. The alley opens onto a main avenue flooded with sunshine and consumerism. The locals are out in full force today. Twenty-something hipsters flank one another in chequer board formations, often forcing the elderly immigrants into the street or holding patterns up against porch stairs. The brave and stupid intermittently attempt to defy Bedford's laws, only to be met with an elbow to the ribs and riot-like heckling.
A Debbie Harry replica clip-clops past me in sandals and a pixie cut. She wears these giant, fly-eye sunglasses that cover half her face. Another sashays past, too absorbed in portraying "aloof" or "apathy" (both easily misguided as "angst") that she fails to notice her limp Chihuahua dragging behind her. The poor dog tries to keep up, but repeatedly trips on its elaborate costume of petticoat and pearls. I trail behind a disarmingly androgynous hippie-meets-flapper crossbreed. It's not until I come within earshot of its conversation with an equally misleading Goth, that I deduce it most likely to be male. But even when swiping past them, and for a moment matching them stride for stride, I'm still not entirely sure. Then a comparatively normal Polish woman charges past us, holding a loaf of bread like a quarterback. Across the street a sinewy and strung out Glam Rock teenager screams at his hand, and then proceeds to beseech passers-by to feed it money. Up the block a lesbian couple laughs out loud, pointing at the Polish woman as she tumbles over the now unconscious Chihuahua, and fumbles her rye. Mohawks push carriages. Hustlers hustle. Stoners devour macrobiotic Asian dumplings from biodegradable take-out containers. Gangs of every nation, creed, and rejected social circle, stand territorial of their staked storefronts as if posing in a high fashion editorial. They have plastered this city layer upon vibrant layer with posters, decals, and guerilla art, and thus documented the evolution of Williamsburg. Centuries from now scientists and historians will exploit the patchwork stratum of these walls as some novel method of carbon dating. And the earliest breed, an amalgamate of intricate facial hair, tribal art, and ornate body-piercings, will have passed down their culture and customs through the lineage that is to inhabit these streets.
Bedford Ave. is a melting pot for the world's black sheep and prodigal children. I do not fit in here. But so desperately would like to.
I pass the window to Grinder's Café and notice Chip already seated inside. It appears he's covered the table and three chairs in paperwork. I pray for strength and open the door. Overhead, a bell bounces off the door in a petite ding. Right on cue, like Pavlov's famed canine, Chip perks up, salivating over what I'm guessing is his next great, financial sinkhole. The cafe is dressed in generic wall, surely compliments of the local junior college. A nutty, musk of French Roast smacks me in the face, and then the drone of acoustic, lovesick whining. It's the subsequent fallout from a cliché dirty-bomb, and Chip is sitting smack center at ground zero. He absolutely loves this place. I find it more akin to a spinal tap.
I pick up a handful of papers from the chair opposite Chip's, which he immediately snatches back and reorganizes.
"So what's all this?" I ask, glancing over the documents. "Wait, lemme guess. You've just embarked on some madcap pyramid scheme to sell timeshares. No, hold on. Stripmalls."
"Well, hello to you too, sweetie. I thought I told ya ten fifteen." He says with a smirk.
I look at my watch. It is ten fifteen. I let him have this one to avoid being castigated for whatever is next on his list.
I play along. "So, Chip."
We both smile. His is far more reminiscent of a used car salesman's.
"Now Ethan baby, I set up this little meeting because I'm dying to hear; how'd those supplements work out for ya? The green tea really gave ya the boost you needed, right? And did ya not just love how well they cleaned out ya system?"
Sure as shit, I did. Literally.
I was holed up in the bathroom for two hellish hours after the first handful.
"Yeah. They were okay."
"Awesome. That is just great! So how many cases can I put ya down for? I could have a shipment overnighted to ya by, say, Tuesday? Sound good?"
I shake my head. "Chip. Honestly, I can't right now. Money is super tight."
He begins to sweat around the temples as his gestures become more enthusiastic and desperate.
"Ya know what, Ethan? That is not a problem." He closes his eyes and centers his Chi or Chakra or whatever fad-driven life force he has embraced this week. "Only because ya are my best customer-"
And by best you mean only.
"-I'm going to let ya in on a little deal. Ya buy the first two boxes. Third is half off. And. I'll even throw in this precious must-have." Chip begins to frantically pry his keys off a TV Guide keychain.
"No Chip. Really." I grab his hand. "You don't have to do that. I just - I just don't think green tea pills - um - well, they might not be for everyone."
He slopes his eyebrows so that they almost meet his receding hairline. Then, in one pitiable, last-ditch plea, Chip stares at me through these sad, syrupy eyes, and mouths, "Please."
I look away.
After an awkward silence, mitigated only by an equally uncomfortable jazz solo, Chip concedes with a soprano-like yelp and throws himself onto the table. I sit here stoic and allow him his regulatory tantrum. Act 1 opens with him swiping a pile of papers off the table and shuddering into folded arms. Tears and saliva begin to puddle on the faux mahogany. In phase two, Chip gives the performance of a lifetime. With arms outstretched to the heavens and tears pouring off his chin, he decries the gods for an explanation. It's all just so grossly self-indulgent and attention-starved that I can't help but let it go on. There's the usual pulling of hair. I count a couple of blind kicks under the table. And then in a completely unexpected grand finale, Chip closes his one-woman show by beating his forehead into the table over and over again; each time squealing the word, "stupid." After three or four brain-hemorrhaging knocks, I'm compelled by law to stop him or possibly face charges of assisted suicide.
Being the loyal, bleeding heart that I aspire to maybe someday become, I cock my elbow back and strike him clean across the face with what may or may not have been an open hand. He sits across from me stunned and silent. We always get a real kick out of this part of our little routine. Or at least I do. All the other stuff just seems like buildup to our big Ike and Tina moment.
"Really? Seriously, Ethan? Really?" Chip scowls at me, massaging his ear.
"Sorry. I had no choice. You were totally out of control. Again."
Over his shoulder I watch the barista approach our corner, armed with a sympathetic smile and a handful of eco-friendly napkins. She bends down with her hands on her knees as if addressing a child, and does her hospitable best to cheer up Chip. "Hi there, sir. I couldn't help but notice, but it looks like you're havin' a pretty rough day. Yeah? You sure are, huh. Well, you know what, buddy? You know what'll make you feel all better? How 'bout I go back there and grab you a fresh muffin and some soothing green tea. On the house."
Chip's cheeks ignite like a stoplight. "Screw you - " He squints at her nametag. " - Gretchen. Fucking screw. You."
Gretchen's cheery visage melts into one of terror. She storms back to her counter with a shattered heart and her futile napkins. She pretends to organize the teas, unaware that we can all hear her sniffling behind the pastry case.
I can't help but feel like this is partially my fault and maybe I should apologize. Then again, someone that wholesome deserves to get the sand kicked in their face every now and again. It builds character. Right?
I turn my attention back to the maniac in front of me. Sporting his madly tousled hair, bloodshot eyes, and sticky face, Chip starts to gather piece after piece of snot-sopped paper. He tries to fall them into neat stacks, but as one would expect, they only stick together. I patiently wait for him to finish. Then realize, this could go on for hours.
He pouts. "Yes."
I wipe Chip's spit from my face.
" 'Cus if not I've got a million things to do this morning. I can just come back - "
"Ethan! Stop!" He smacks the table with both hands. I notice his glossy, manicured nails. Chip is hands-down the gayest heterosexual I know.
I gently squeeze his hand. "Chi-ip. Would it help to talk about it?"
He swallows back the impulse to cry and wipes his nose on his sleeve.
"I just -" he stammers. "I just. I am such an idiot." A solitary tear brims over his lower lid and falls onto my hand. It melts into my skin, and like some inexplicable, voodoo potion, I'm flooded with empathy for my friend.
Yes, folks. Let us get it all out into the open here and now, and dispel any rumors that might state otherwise. Ethan Elliot does in fact have a heart. Despite opposition from naysayers - namely those whom I would routinely yank off the monkey bars at St. Peter's Elementary - I do care about my fellow man. Often times it's just buried deep under survivalist layers of cynicism and apathy.
"It's gonna be okay, Chip. Really."
"No it is not going to be okay, Eth-an. I blew three month's rent on those stupid pills, and they're ruining my life. I can't even get into my kitchen there is so much crap in there. It is seriously floor to ceiling boxes. There is no décor. There's no flair. Just these ugly, green reminders, reminding what an enormous, giant failure I am. No Ethan, seriously. I am not even kidding. This is like five times worse than the Tupperware fiasco. Ya can't even see the china hutch. It's totally blocked. I wake up every morning to these hideous...things. It's like I'm - I'm living a nightmare. Speaking of which, the other night I dreamt I was buried under this avalanche of pills ya know, and I was trying and trying to just keep my head above water in this pounding ocean of green tea. It was awful. This is completely screwing up the Feng Shui in my apartment and seriously stressing me out. I can't live like this Ethan. I cannot live like this."
The ladies behind him whisper.
Chip shifts from panting to wheezing to Lamaze.
"Calm down Chip. How much did you buy?"
I roll my eyes.
He counters. "It was supposed to be the next Starbucks."
Outside it starts to drizzle. Chip and I witness as the street becomes a shade darker. Pixel by pixel, every hue deepens. And step by step people grow increasingly uneasy. Slowly, it begins. First, feet accelerate. Brows pucker. Then as if under attack, the whole block erupts into a contagious panic. New Yorkers, much like felines, do not deal well with wet. The quickest hide out under shop awnings. The slower species are left to shield themselves from the downpour with coats, newspapers, and shopping bags with holes poked out for eyes. A headless family of forest-green races past us in a chain, and it reminds me of those boarder patrol signs I used to see during my summers in California. The littlest rolls an ankle and falls hard against the pavement. She wails herself into a fetal position, and moments later, the matriarch is scooping the child into her bosom.
The tallest of the flock shouts, "She's weak. Leave her!"
I look over and Chip is grinning ear to ear; his face and palms pressed up against the glass.
"Brad. What the hell is wrong with you? We can't just leave her; she's our daughter for Christ sake. A little help here, Bradly? Brad!"
Brad and the other two get into a taxi heading in the direction of JFK Airport.
Chip and I stretch back into our chairs. He grins. "God I love the rain."
"Me too, Chip. Me. Too."
We spend the rest of our "business meeting" reminiscing about what a menstrual cad Chip had been to our poor Gretchen. Luckily, within the hour she's back into full swing, and making change over a small cup of Sumatra. She smiles genuinely. And somehow it unsettles me. My body surges from that adrenal pump of jealousy and I shift in my seat. How can someone possibly be so selfless? Effortlessly selfless. I find myself rationalizing her disposition as masochistic or a lack of self-worth, but know that deep down she possesses something I want. But will never find.
She is human.
Not a predatory animal like the rest of us.
She is the genus we were meant to be before monetary systems, fashion magazines, corporate monopolies, and product placement.
She is uncontaminated.
It makes me wonder what Gretchen was like as a little girl. At what point did she learn to shell herself from our sick and dying race of vampires? Is her heart the result of soft-handed nurturing or a childhood of shaming? Self-hatred? Stupidity? Regardless of its source, her humanity is a cure.
I suddenly feel nauseous.
The morning lulls, and I fade into the background. Chip's mouth races, but I hear nothing. The music is gone. Only a stillness is left. My brain focuses down to a solitary sense, and everyone, including myself, slows to a fractioned pace.
The gossips behind Chip bend at the neck in a cackle. The flaxen one lifts the corner of her mouth into a wink as the other drags a tongue across her scarlet lips. Their bodies move slow and unnatural.
Under a painting of sunflowers, I survey a man delicately arranging lotto tickets into rows. He counts them out with a disfigured, index finger. And then a second time. I tally close to thirty. He folds his hands into his lap, and for a moment every cell in his body turns to granite. He awakens from this comatose pause into a contained paroxysm of frenzied ticket shredding.
Out the window, I watch a man yell silently into his phone, but the only part I read is: "I don't care how you feel, Margaret. This is about me."
My guilty conscience grows.
Monsters and cripples.
This is who we've become.
Outside, I hold a broke and beaten Chip on the wet corner. The rain has stopped, but not his tears. I reassure him, as I have countless times past, that this will all work out in the wash.
"Chip, there is a reason for everything. There's beauty in this; it makes us who we are. Grow from it. Remember, like the sapling?" My words echo within me. I absorb them.
"Thank ya, Ethan."
"You're welcome, Chip. I'm here for you, okay? Call me if you need to talk."
He starts to walk away.
"Oh. And Chip. Put me down for a couple boxes okay? Maybe they just take a little time to work, ya know?"
He rolls his eyes and chuckles. "Goodbye Ethan. Love ya."
"Love you too, man."
And the amazing thing is: I do. From the bottom of my heart. He is my comrade. My brother. My kindred atoms. If there's anything I've learned in the last few years here, it's that your family is not necessarily established by bloodline. It's not the strangers who make drunken fools of themselves on holidays. It may not even be those who reared you since birth and send you checks in sans-sentiment birthday cards. "Family", in its truest sense, is the select few who know you to the marrow. They have crawled the most intimate parts of your soul and bushwhacked through your ugliest elements to nestle warm and fixed in your heart. I know unflinchingly that I would endure the most horrific end to spare Chip. And that he would do the same for me. He will be my best man, and my children's godfather. He will be my Gin Rummy partner. My Thelma. I can imagine us wrinkled on a porch in the Cape, laughing ourselves hoarse as we recall this very morning. As for my sister, I can't say I'm certain she would even jump-start my car if I were left stranded on the freeway.
The sky cracks open, washing the street and stores in light. Williamsburg has survived yet another seasonal baptism. Slowly, the creatures of Bedford Ave. emerge from their hiding places. Gretchen waves goodbye. And I head towards the L train, taking in the smell of pavement rinsed clean by rain and tears.