a short story by Drew Saint-Claire
On Sunday mornings, I walk to a coffee shop down the street from my home. I honor this ritual as regularly and as reverently as the churchgoers I pass on my way there. One of the things that has kept me from losing my mind living in this country is going on these walks and pretending that my neighborhood is like one in Paris. Sometimes I can really convince myself that I’m walking down the Champs Elysees passing all sorts of interesting and empathetic people. It helps. Otherwise, I couldn’t survive this walk. Otherwise, I’d walk past all these people and see them as I really do: as animals. I get anxious being around so many of them- moving amongst them- all without leashes. I keep my arms at my sides to appear non-threatening. I avoid eye contact. I don’t make sudden movements. If one gets too close, I stamp my feet around and yell incoherently. Not with my coffee in my hand though.
I always get my coffee to go. I can’t stay in the shop. I can’t keep pretending that long. I take my coffee back to my apartment. I’ve barricaded myself in here and I only go out for coffees now. I feel safe in here. I feel safe with the things in here. In my closet, I have an M1 Garand propped up against an orange winter jacket. I’ve never used either. The gun is my grandfather’s. He got it for fighting the Japanese. One night, he told me how he was ready to die fighting the Japanese- how he should have.
When I get anxious, I get the gun out of the closet.
I hold it how he taught me.
Every summer as a boy, I’d spend a month at my maternal grandparents’ house in the mountains of western Virginia. I spent them playing basketball barefoot and watching cartoons on the floor of my uncle’s living room. He had deer heads hanging on the wood panel walls. I like to think they watched cartoons too. One day during one summer, my grandfather took me and the M1 Garand back into the holler behind the house. We crossed a creek and sat empty Sprite cans on a fallen tree. The air smelled like heather and chèvre.
I was a good shot. He said I had the heart to kill; he could see it in how I looked down the barrel of the gun. At the time, I liked how that made me feel.
“Your momma was only able to have you- that’s why you’re like that. Shouldn’t a been trying at her age.” He looked at me. The sun was reflecting off his glasses so you couldn’t see his eyes.
I didn’t say anything.
“Hit the rest of them cans, boy.” Then he spit on the ground and walked back to the house.
I stood there and watched him cross the creek and open the back screen door. I stayed in the holler till the sun went down and my arms got tired from aiming the gun at the windows of the house. When I came back inside, my grandfather was peeling apples with a knife while my grandmother made chicken and dumplings on the stove. My grandfather looked at me and didn’t make a sound as I sat the gun down by the door. I had seen him looking out the window at me several times before I came inside. He had looked down at me looking down at him looking down the barrel of the rifle. All three of us ate in silence.
That night, I had a dream. I saw two images of myself. They were a little older, but I knew they were still me. They were wearing the same clothes: red flannels and blue jeans. One was holding a knife standing over the other one- the other me- who was crumpled on an oriental rug. There was blood all over the rug. There were deer heads on the wall. The me standing over the other me looked down at the other me for a while, then he looked up at me. He smiled with a mouth and teeth that were too big for his face- for our face. He asked what was wrong. His voice was deep; I felt it in my chest before I heard it in my ears. I asked him who he was. He said he was in charge now. He said that this one was holding us back, and he used the knife to point to the me on the rug, whose eyes were still open, staring back at me. I woke up sweating in the dark under hot flannel sheets. I told my grandmother about the dream and she gave me a small porcelain angel to set beside the bed. She muttered something about my mother and closed the door, leaving me back in the darkness.
I didn’t have any more dreams that summer.
My grandfather never got to die in Japan. He died many summers after he taught me how to shoot that gun, many summers after I had ever been back to western Virginia. In his will, he left me the M1 Garand and his flannel pajamas. I only wear the pajamas on the coldest nights of the year and I always make sure to take them off completely before I sleep with a girl. It feels strange if I don’t.
My grandfather never got to die in Japan but I can die right here. I can die defending my apartment from the animals roaming around outside, from the other me with the big teeth and the big knife. I can die right here defending my cup of coffee.
I used to work shifts. All sorts of shifts: janitor shifts, dishwasher shifts, busboy shifts, even coffee shop shifts. I don’t work shifts any more, but I still maintain the mentality of the shift- and it is a mentality.
The time in between shifts is beautiful. Behind you, the shift, in front of you, the shift- but the distance between them is immeasurable. As distant as Heaven and Hell, and equally as uncertain in what will come from either. Whole lifetimes could elapse in those days off, and they often did for me. I filled them with as many distractions as I could. I needed things to fill my hands, otherwise I’d drag them along the sidewalk and sharpen my nails into claws. There was a fire inside me at that time that needed gallons of cheap liquor to burn. I fed it, but the only heat it ever gave off were brief moments of warmth when I would cum on a waitress’s thigh.
It was a poor fire.
I always get a small black coffee. In my days as a barista, I respected the men (all of them men) who got small black coffees. It was like their proof of practicing some vow that they would take the least and do the most with it- bringing their black coffees to formica tables to pound away at their computers for hours, unaware that, to me, they were like monks sitting around with prayer beads, fasting from the stale cheese danishes to accomplish their easy toil. They turned their coffee into something- it was artisan alchemy, hand-roasted and sustainably sourced from Sumatra. I wanted to be like them, so I made the decision to drink black coffee in every circumstance I felt I couldn’t treat myself to something nice- which is often.
I drink a black coffee so I can smoke a joint with it at the same time. I want my mouth to be resinous. I want to dissolve the paper cup I’m nursing with this acid I’m culturing in my mouth like a vinegar mother. I want to develop a taste for the bitterness, to really know it, because I know I’ll taste it often. I want to taste it and not grimace- to swallow it down with the same face I made when I looked down the barrel of the M1 Garand that summer. I want every girl I kiss to taste it too- and to spit it out- like my cum. I’ll make sure I’m not wearing any pajamas.
I put the coffee cup up to my lips and sip.
It scalds me.
I put the coffee in the refrigerator. It feels cold and dry in my apartment all of the sudden, so I start up the stairs to get my winter jacket. Before I do though, I go back in the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove so I can make some tea.
“A Snake In My House”
a short story by Drew Saint-Claire
When I was a young boy, I went to a Catholic elementary school with a chunky blacktop for a playground. It was on a hill that overlooked the tobacco factories and smoke stacks of downtown. One day, I was picking up what I thought were sea shells off of the blacktop. They were cigarette filters. I didn’t know. There were hundreds. I began to wonder how there were so many, if they fell from the sky like one of the plagues we learned about in school, or if they were here to punish us for the evil deeds of the men I believed lived in the tops of those smokestacks down the hill. I stuffed the shells into my high-waisted navy blue shorts. It was May…maybe. A nun came from behind me and took my hand. I watched the seashells fall out onto the asphalt as her wrinkled fingers dug into my palms. She had grey teeth. She asked what I was doing. I said, “Collecting seashells, Sister: you don’t often find them this far inland.” She took the last of the filters with a slap and said they weren’t seashells. I spent the rest of play time sitting on the steps of the friars’ house, which was the punishment for all nonviolent offenses. I wondered what the seashells really were and whether more would come from the sky, or whether they’d spring forth from the blacktop during the next hard rain, when the Earth would purge itself from taking in too many of them. Maybe, in the middle of the night, the men down the hill came out from their smokestacks and scattered them around for little boys to find.
I waited until the friars came out. I told them they should consecrate the ground again to make sure the seashells wouldn’t come out of the ground. They told me to go play.
When I was 25 years old, I began renting an old bungalow in a well-to-do part of the city with a female acquaintance of mine. It was our first taste of attaining the American middle class all by ourselves and this bungalow was the symbol of our ascension. I relished every moment of it. I especially loved it because it was something I knew I shouldn’t have- and because it was something I knew I would lose soon enough.
I moved into this house a full month before my roommate did, during November, while on a furlough from my job with the state government. In that month, I saw and went to war with many ghosts.
The month did not start with the ghosts though. It started with an ax.
In the time leading up to moving into this house, I had come to believe that nothing in this life would ever excite me again. A void had taken over inside me, an absence of form that fit me better than anything tangible ever had. It was a primordial thing, something I came to realize had always lived inside me. An immense thing had come home to roost, and I obediently prepared room for it. At night, lying in the dark, I slipped into it and we became one. I could stand at the edge of myself and peer into the abyss- I could throw stones into who I once was and watch the stones be consumed without a sound. The weight of the stars was here, but there was no burden. I came to see the void as me; I came to see the void as home. I longed to return home.
So, I resigned myself to the fact that I would take my own life. This was a matter of practicality. There was a sense of respect even. There was no sadness. It would be humane, like putting down the family pet. I was curious too. I wanted to know what it felt like to take down an animal of my size, to hear the sound it made when all these things inside me, seen and unseen, collapsed onto the floor. No challengers had ever arrived: I was the only one worthy of destroying the thing I loved most in this world, and there was a small sense of pride in that. I had trouble deciding on the best way to go about this though. It had to be done the right way, so I gave myself a week to decide on the right method. I gave myself a week just in case I changed my mind.
That first night in the house I went to clean out the basement. It was unfinished- a dirt floor with brick walls. In the corner of the basement, in the sliver of light that spilled in from the open door, I saw an ax. It was an ax like any other ax, but I knew this ax was put there just for me. Everything that had happened had happened just to put this ax in this corner of this basement of this house. The ax spoke, and it used my mouth to speak: self-decapitation. That was it. It was strength; it was was finesse; it was pageantry; it was ritual. It was decided. I would decapitate myself.
The next few days I worked out the logistics of this, admittedly, clever idea. I dragged my nightstand downstairs into the kitchen and etched lines into the black lacquer with the ax to measure out the best spots to lay my head. I took notes on which swings worked best, how much force to use, and whether I should face left or right. I trained myself not to flinch when I felt the ax above me. I practiced breathing so I would exhale on the swing. I was so focused on every detail that I would forget the purpose in all of this till I’d have to etch another line on the drawer. I walked around with the ax all day and all night and I sharpened it obsessively with a honing steel while I did chores. I carried it around while I puttied holes in the walls. The ax was my main chore though. The ax was my favorite chore.
Then the ghosts came.
They came on the day when I was going to swing the ax just once.
I heard them above me. I heard them below me. I heard them everywhere around me. I ran into the dining room and grabbed the wall putty. I drew a circle of protection around me using my very limited knowledge of the occult (which had been taught to us in school so we could prepare ourselves for when we encountered it.) I knew the names of the major demons of Hell, I knew their sigils, and I knew a little bit about which herbs I could use: garlic, sage, rosemary- all of which I had on hand, all of which were local and organic. I slept in the circle that night and it protected me, but I knew it would not be enough for much longer. I pried up up the putty circle in the morning and made another one with a piece of chalk I found in the basement. Many more circles would be needed. I mopped them away each morning with Pine-Sol. There was a knife I had purchased from an amputee veteran at a flea market the previous summer in the nightstand. I took it out and sharpened it with the honing steel. I locked all the doors to the house. I covered up all the windows with fitted flannel sheets and duct tape. I put the ax on the mantle above our fireplace. I sat there, in the middle of the circle in the middle of the living room in the middle of this very large, very old house. I sat in the middle of all this with my knife in my hand looking at the ax on the mantle. That night I would have my first fight.
At the time, unbeknownst to my roommate, I had brought into our house a large amount of LSD, “magic mushrooms”, cocaine, and ketamine (the latter of which I obtained purely for the novelty.) I also brought what I considered at that time to be my routine groceries: an ounce and a half of Afghani Kush, six pints of Tennessee whiskey, and several bottles of cheap Merlot which I purchased (chilled) from a convenience store down the street. The owner of the store was a short and cheerful Congolese man of about forty. He had glassy, happy eyes. I spoke to him in broken French. He treated me like his own son.
My only solid sustenance during this time were tuna salad sandwiches (balsamic vinegar, red onion, salt, pepper) from a sandwich shop up the street. I ate these sandwiches only because I had amassed a pile of coupons from the state fair a few weeks prior. I took them on my way out from an elderly woman who was giving them away on behalf of her church. I left the fair because I had been asked to do so. I had jumped the gate into the petting zoo and, sobbing uncontrollably, had tried to release the baby goats. I don’t remember it. I only remember grabbing handfuls of coupons. I left my house only to get more of these sandwiches or to buy more chilled Merlot from the convenience store. The coupons were nice to have in the beginning, but, toward the end of the month, I wouldn’t need them anymore. I started eating grass from the front yard. It was enough.
I had knives. I had sandwiches. I was ready for the siege.
When night came, I began smoking and snorting and drinking. I did all of this in front of an altar I had assembled from the nightstand and my roommate’s pumpkin-spice scented candles. The wax flowed out and filled the etches in the lacquer. In several rooms throughout the house, I put more of these candles. I did this so I could see the ghosts. Since I didn’t know how to pay our electric bill, our house was in darkness the entire month. I wouldn’t have known it. I was using the bills we received in the mail to start fires for the candles, of which there were now forty or more. When the bills ran out, I used the coupons. After I was finished smoking and snorting and drinking, I poured some of the Merlot over my head and over the knife. Then I fought ghosts.
Every morning, all I had to show for the previous night’s fights were bloody forearms. Straight cuts, many- always across my forearms. I couldn’t understand it. Towards the end, when I was truly bezerk, I mixed the blood from my wounds with the Merlot and I drank it in front of the altar. It tasted like Sambuca. I wasn’t using the circles anymore- I had gone on the offensive.
In the final days of that month, there were fewer and fewer cuts on my arms. I guess I was getting better at fighting.
When I went to get more wine, I wore long-sleeve shirts. This was out of respect for the convenience store owner, but also to cover up my wounds. He smiled when I walked to the counter with the bottles of wine. I never had the heart to tell him you shouldn’t chill Merlot. My French was getting better.
I spent most of the days sleeping in the chalk circles and most of the nights fighting the ghosts. These were fevered and frenzied fights: they left me exhausted enough to sleep for twelve or fourteen hours straight. I was naked during these fights as well, for what I told myself were tactical purposes. I welcomed this opportunity willingly though, to fight the ghosts. To fight the ghosts was to fight for my life.
I approached these fights with a feeling I could only describe now as “love”: I loved this. I realized that I had loved few things and few people in my life up to this point, but I loved fighting the ghosts. I loved them passionately. I loved them in every room of that old house. I loved them naked and heaving. I loved them naked and screaming. I loved them with a big, wine-soaked knife. In a way, I think they loved me too. Everything in that house wanted me dead. I never felt so alive.
Those were intense nights, but I lived. By the time my roommate arrived in late November, I had become a different man. I walked with a spring in my step, I laughed constantly, and I ate only a few handful of cherry tomatoes a day for sustenance. I had saved a bottle of Merlot for us to drink on her first night at the house and we did. It wasn’t chilled. My roommate never knew about the ghosts. I never told her. I never told anyone. I had confronted everything in that house I had to; I had gone to war with many ghosts and I had re-grouted the guest bathroom: there was nothing left for me to conquer.
I locked the knife in the nightstand. I would not have to use it again until the next summer. The cuts on my forearms had disappeared. I never knew how.
I put the ax back in the basement. I haven’t been down there since. I always feel it down there though, through the thick plaster and the crown molding- I feel it. I feel it wherever I am. I always know where it is. Part of me thinks it knows where I am too.
I never painted over the etches in the nightstand. I wanted to remember.
On my first day during that month, before the ghosts came, I took a break from repainting our dining room and went out back to see where we could plant a garden. There were oyster shells everywhere along the ground. I picked one up. I thought about the cigarette filters. I thought about the Sister. I looked behind me, but no one was there.
I realized there never would be anymore.
Somewhere in Wake County, a phone rings.
“Hi, my name is Drew and I’m calling on behalf of the Wake County Parks and Recreation Department. The City would like your input on parks, trails, and green way priorities for this coming year. Would you be interested in taking a short survey with me? Wake County would sincerely like you to…”
Somewhere in Wake County, a phone hangs up.
I keep the receiver next to my chin as I pencil in “RF30” on the little pink slip in front of me. I push the slip to the right and grab a fresh slip from my left. Marked slips go to the right; new slips are on the left. They look like Monopoly money. These slips keep track of the responses we’re getting to our survey and there are special codes for each type of interaction I’m anticipated to have while on the phone. The “RF” is for “refusal/no response.” It’s the most common. And the “30”? Well, that’s me. I’m 30. It’s written on the white board above my cubicle in case I ever forget.
I never will though.
During the last few months of 2013, I started applying to lots of jobs at NC State University. At the time, I was substitute teaching for high schools during the day and picking up shifts at a local coffee shop at night. I was fairly content with that scenario all things considered, but figured I’d start exploring other options just to be safe in the event I lost my cool at a school and slapped the shit out of a 9th grader. It was only a matter of time until I did. One day, while I was expecting an email for a third round interview to be a PR guy for the Genetic Engineering Department, I got an email from a random contact saying there’s an immediate need for a call center worker. I’ve already been cleared by the university and can start tonight if I want. That sounded like a nice change of pace from making soy lattes, so I close my laptop and go to the address they provided in the email.
This call center is located on the second floor of a low key office building. To get up there, I call the supervisor on this phone next to an elevator and wait for the doors to open. The call center is really just a dimly lit room with a coffee maker and couple of cubicles up against a wall. The rest of the second floor is just office space for other departments, but, since I work at night, all of the lights are off whenever I’m here. My little office is a beacon of light in the vast darkness, along with the Coke machine at the end of the hall. Mrs. Percy is my supervisor. She’s a witty middle-age black woman who likes Fritos. She shows me my desk and my phone.
“Alright, Drew. So, you’re going to,” she pauses. “…you’re going to be replacing Cheryl,” Mrs. Percy says, half to herself.
“I guess she’s moved on to bigger and better, huh?” I chuckle.
There’s an awkward silence.
“Umm, no, honey.” Mrs. Percy composes herself. “Cheryl…Cheryl passed away a few days ago.”
I just stand there and look at the desk feeling like I got kicked in the stomach. A miniature street sign with her name is still tacked to the wall next to a postcard from Orlando.
“You’re gonna be number 30. Here, I’ll show you where the coffee maker is,” Mrs. Percy says.
Now, for the first part of my shift, I’m in the office with a couple of other people before they clock out. There’s Maggie, a 60-year old former flower child from Brooklyn, and Ingrid, a kind and soft-spoken Filipino woman. Sometimes, over the course of our small talk, they’d bring up Cheryl. They’d tell me some of the bizarre conversations she’d get into with the survey takers and the sassy responses she had for the excessively rude ones. Other than that though, they didn’t know much about her. She livened up the place, they said. These women knew Cheryl well enough to know her humor, but not enough to feel any deep pain at her loss, which I thought was interesting. In all honesty, that made her the perfect friend in my mind- a highlight reel of her mortal existence. I start thinking that’s actually the kind of person I want be: the guy everyone likes, but no one will ever feel pain at losing. I want to be like the ice cream samples you get on those little wooden spoons. Sample tastes of sample people with sample lives. Vanilla lives, strawberry lives, even mint chocolate chip lives- everything on a stick that you can throw away in an undersized trash can by the door when you’re done. Don’t feel pressured to commit. They’ll always be here in case you want to try them again, sitting under cold glass so you can see what you’re getting yourself into beforehand. Trial periods of life. Trial periods- just like my job here.
Now, being cooped up in a dark office till the wee hours of the night starts to do a number on your sanity after a while. After a few days, I slowly start coming to grips with the fact that I’m sitting in a dead woman’s chair making cold calls. With that sobering realization, I start letting my mind wander outside of myself more than usual. Eventually, I start thinking that half of the people I’m calling are dead too- like I’m conducting a seance from my swivel chair. Maybe the sound waves from the phone are beginning to travel through the ether, through Heaven and Hell itself, to the dearly departed. I guess Heaven and Hell would have different area codes, but they aren’t in my little booklet of reference numbers, so I can’t be sure. I’ve become an angel on accident, carrying out God’s divine plan right here from my cubicle. I’m showing my condolences for people I don’t even know and, in my mind, I begin to see the places where my phone calls are going: the shallow grave of a John Doe on the side of I-40, the purse of a girl who just overdosed, the open casket viewing for a father of four. I start hearing the ringing all the time too. The fucking ringing. When I drove home after work, I’d turn the radio up as far as it could go so I wouldn’t hear the ringing. After a few more nights, I began to hear the ringing everywhere- from my car radio, from the PA system at the grocery store, from the drive-thru window speaker box.
One night, my phone woke me up around 3am. I looked at my screen and saw a number I didn’t know. I passed it off as a butt dial, until I started thinking: “what if the dead are starting to call me?” Realizing that, I threw the phone at the wall and just looked at it as it vibrated across my bedroom floor. It kept ringing and I imagined the shallow breathing of the undead on the other line. Then it stopped, then it beeped: one new voicemail. I fumbled around in my nightstand and grabbed my rosary beads from under a small pile of condoms. I held the beads tight and listened to the voicemail. It was just my mom. She was calling me from Key West to tell me the bar she was at was playing our favorite Jimmy Buffet song.
Eventually, I start worrying I’m going to end up calling my aunt who died while I was working at the call center. If only I had called her to conduct a survey, I thought, maybe I could have saved her. They found her on the porch. My mom said she had choked to death. When she told me that, all I could think about was this girl I had slept with one time who wanted me to choke her while we had sex. I remember just sort of placing my hand on top of her neck because I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. She said all these weird things to me while I tried to avoid eye contact with her. Afterwards, I remember lying to her that I forgot I had work in the morning so I could leave. I came home and took a lukewarm shower. I never saw her again after that night. She called me a few nights after that, like how the undead would start doing, but eventually the calls stopped. Now all I can see is my aunt’s face on that girl; that girl’s face on my aunt. I felt dirty, like I have old cigarettes sitting in my stomach. I didn’t know what to say to my mom. I just hear her crying on the other end and after a while her crying sounds like the dial tone from my cubicle phone. I figured maybe I should ask my mom the survey questions to make her feel better: “What do you consider the most important aspect of your dead sister: accessibility? cleanliness? diversity of experiences?…Overall, how satisfied are you with your dead sister?…Don’t worry, at the end of the survey, you’ll have time to leave a comment for her. And let me just say again that the City sincerely appreciates your input on this matter.”
It’s been a few months since I worked at the call center, but I still get woken up in the middle of the night by numbers I don’t know. It’s a different number every time, and they never leave voicemails. I know it’s the dead calling me. They’re calling me from beyond the grave to come join them- to join Cheryl and my Aunt Sue Sue. I watch the phone vibrate then go still. Somewhere an angel or a demon is writing down “RF30.” I know they’ll never stop calling me. I know eventually I’m going to have to answer that phone call too, but I’m not scared of it any more.
Why? Because even in Hell, I know I’m going to get four bars of service.
Listen to This: “Same Day”- J Mascis and the Fog, “Son of Sam”- Elliott Smith, “Golden Age”- the Love Language, “Get Away”- Yuck, “Waiting for the Carnival”- the Rosebuds, “California Babylon”- the Transplants, “National Anthem”- Lana del Ray
“Drew. I need you to come back to me, Drew.”
I snap my eyes open. My therapist, a middle-aged white woman with too much jewelry, is sitting across from me with a clipboard and pen. She’s been expecting me.
“You did a great job, Drew. I’m very proud of you and I appreciate you.” I roll my sleepy eyes and look past her- past the framed degrees on the wall, past the fake fern in the corner, past her politically correct jargon. “You’re in a safe place now.” She puts a cold, wrinkly hand on my forearm.
Apparently, she had just guided me through what I’m told was a small childhood trauma. It’s part of her psychoanalytic treatment: going back into the past to see where certain issues originated. I’m not really sure what kind of progress we made though.
I was just imagining what it’d be like to fuck two girls at the same time.
Repressed memories must be a lot like not being able to cum, only for years on end. I look at the clock. There’s ten minutes left in our session- enough for a quickie.
“Alright. I need you to do one more thing for us before we leave, Drew. I want you to go to the special place we talked about on that worksheet I gave you. Go there and describe it for me- how peaceful and happy it is.” She says this with gushing sincerity.
It’s the summer before my junior year in college. My behavior has been “odd” the past couple of months, so my parents got me five sessions at a local therapist to figure out why I’ve been acting strange.
I’m Dr. Sitzer’s last client of the day, so I imagine by the time she gets to me (after a morning full of rape victims and recent divorcees), I’m sort of a cake walk. My problems are normal white suburbanite problems, meaning they’re not real problems at all. I figured I’m probably an open and shut case: maybe a lack of closure from someone’s death or some body image issues stemming from being a chubby adolescent. We even have a shot at convincing me I’m gay if she gives me enough worksheets about it. Nothing concrete yet though, no skeletons in the closet- just a wishbone or two. My routine these days is pretty much equal parts masturbation and Xbox- what could be the problem?
“Close your eyes, Drew. I want you to describe your special place to me. What’s it look like?”
I decide to humor her.
“I’m in a field in the farmland outside my house. There are cows in the distance mooing.”
“Cows?” she interrupts.
“Yes, cows. This is my happy place and I want to have cows.” I retort with my eyes closed.
“Sorry. Continue,” she says.
“It’s dusk in October or early November. The air smells like grass and cinnamon. There’s a cool breeze blowing through the tall grass. There’s no one around for miles and no one needs me for anything. I’m alone. There’s an abandoned barn with a halfpipe inside down a dirt road. I’m walking to it. I’m going to skate it till late at night then sleep under the stars. Everything is serene. Everything is calm. Everything is peace.”
Everything is okay.
“Wake the fuck up, princess!”
I snap my eyes open. A young, grizzled line cook is squinting at me like I’m some kind of alien. He slides a bowl of cheese covered tater tots across the stainless steel server window. I can’t imagine how someone’s stomach can break this down.
He shoves a paper ticket in my face. “Stop fingering yourself and get this shit to 415.”
I watch as he turns around and stands in front of the fryer. Braydon, the cook, is a few years older than me: sinewy, with a mop top of silky black hair stuffed under his yellowed Florida Gators hat. Sometimes I believed that the hat was a part of Braydon- that if I managed to knock it off somehow, he would crumble into dust. I’d be the one who’d have to sweep him up though. I’d get the broom from the supply closet and collect his essence alongside stale Italian bread crumbs, then dump him in the alley behind the restaurant. It would be an oddly befitting funeral rite, but Braydon would have wanted it that way.
Braydon turns back around. “Why are you still standing there, Shakespeare? Looking for literary symbolism in that food ticket? Oh wait, nah, I know what you want,” he grabs his crotch with the bottom of his apron. “You want some of this dick- don’t ya, baby?”
I shake my head and stab the ticket. Braydon is telling the other cooks how grande his cajones are in broken Spanglish as I swing the door open into the dining room.
Everywhere I look- bodies. Not people- bodies, fucking flesh on flesh. Legs, guts, asses, tits, dicks, heads- parts. They seemed to be stacked on top of each other, how Picasso must have seen them. They seem to spawn from everywhere. Dense. Loud. Bodies. Raleigh’s middle class in concentrate form- like the industrial tubs of garlic powder in the pantry downstairs.
This isn’t my happy place.
I try and sift through the nooks and the crannies- through the starched sleeves and the BoHo blouses of the dining room. Every now and then one of those sleeves and blouses belongs to someone I knew and they’ll stop me. Perhaps we had graduated together or lived in the dorms sophomore year. They’d introduce their girlfriend, they’d tell me about how they just started at Cisco, they’d ask what kind of beer this is. They’d remember me: the smart one in class, the creative guy, that person everyone always liked. The one who’s going to get you another beer, the one who’s going to clean up your girlfriend’s vomit, the one who will be sweeping Braydon’s ashes in an alleyway while you’re getting a blowjob in your condo.
Food dropped off, I return downstairs. The kitchen has died down now- no orders, no smoke, no profanities in whatever language. It’s 11:45pm. I grab the mac n’ cheese Braydon begrudgingly gives me- “fucking vegetarian,” and eat next to the water heater in the basement. Table for one.
I come back up and wash my plate against the dishwasher’s insistence: “No, Maria- es nada. Nada.” My back against the counter, I watch the kitchen- chef taking off his apron, Francisco idly talking to Eduardo as they chop cabbage, Danny blasting dubstep on the little radio perched precariously above a bowl of raw ground beef, Braydon trying to push my buttons about something.
“You know, believe it or not, Drew, I actually like you,” he says.
“Tough love, right?” I say.
He chuckles to himself. “Aww, you’re the only guy on the server staff who actually has a brain in his fucking skull and can take a hit. You know what arugala looks like and you work like a Goddamn Mexican- I admire that.” Francisco and Eduardo stop to leer at Braydon. “That’s a compliment,” he says to me before addressing the two in the back. “Un cumplido, hombres. Un cumplido.”
“Yeah. Well, apparently no one else seems to care much about that,” I say.
“Oh, are we gonna fiddle our dicks about how bad we feel now?” Braydon wipes his hands on his apron.
“I’m not trying to get sympathy, man. Just saying.”
“You came to the wrong place if you want sympathy, veg head.” He puts his apron on the counter and leans through the window. “Here’s your situation the way I see it: you’re working here. So, strike one. You have no real contacts here in Raleigh- and despite what they told you, that means you don’t have many prospects- doesn’t matter what shit they wrote on your degree, Good Will Hunting. The reason that fucktard from your psych class is getting fifty k a year is because his dad knew someone. Now you may know a lot of shit, but it ain’t about people- so that means you don’t know shit. Not your fault. You probably got some friends that have your back though, maybe there’s even a girl out there who’d actually want to fuck you more than once or twice, but for the most part, you’re also rolling solo and you’re starting to feel it. I know you don’t have money cause you make less than me and I’m broke.” Braydon bites his lip as if he’s doing the math in his head. “Yeah, man- you’re kinda fucked.”
For some reason his assertion awakens a deep insecurity inside me- something Freudian that I actually remember from psych class and fucktard doesn’t. Maybe it was something my therapist was trying to tap in to. “Why is all this happening to me? I played by the rules, man. I studied hard so I could be in the top ten percent of my class. I volunteered at homeless shelters. I never took shortcuts to anything. I always try to be the good guy. I did what I thought was right. I even put the fucking seat down when I go to a unisex bathroom. I did what I was supposed to do but nothing seems right.”
I look off into space. I’m trying to find my happy place, but I don’t hear any cows. “Why?”
Braydon smiles reassuringly, then leans in, “Cause fuck you.” He walks out of sight.
For the first time, I had no real retort. Braydon’s words landed so heavy in my mind that my mouth couldn’t open. People had told me that before, but for some reason, I felt it hit me in the gut, right where my mac n’ cheese was beginning to fester. It was a back room sermon.
“Cause fuck you.”
The more I thought about it, the more that phrase grew to mean so much me. It became my “om”- my affirmation of faithlessness. I could imagine myself rocking back and forth holding a string of beads, counting how many times I said it- prostrating myself on piss soaked concrete to revere the fry cook’s gospel.
“Cause fuck you” became part of my vernacular. It got me through more of those treacherous nights at the bar- my safety word for when circumstance was whipping my ass too hard. It got me through days where I saw how heavy the world is- seeing homeless men sleep in church vestibules, wiping snot from some wheelchair confined kid’s nose, seeing people arrested in front of me. It answered all of life’s questions, at least to the point I could carry on- whether it was mass murders or getting cut off on the Beltline, the answer was reduced to the same tao- “cause fuck you.”
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Cause fuck you.
Why can’t I seem to get anything right?
Cause fuck you.
Why did my grandpa have to die that way?
Cause fuck you.
Why can’t I be with her?
Cause fuck you.
Why do I feel this way?
Cause fuck you.
Why am I so angry?
Cause fuck you.
Why am I so sad?
Cause fuck you.
Why do I not feel anything?
Cause fuck you.
My happy place is fading to black. No cows, no clandestine half pipe in an old barn, no cool autumn nights- just cold hard reality where people struggle, fuck, starve, bleed, and die. Where there’s war, rape, famine, fraud, and addiction. No cows, no reasons, no hope.
So then why continue, why go on- why live?
Cause fuck you- that’s why.
“Drew. Come back to me, Drew. Your session is over.”
Listen to This: “Incense and Peppermints”- Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Tears of a Clown”- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Let It All Hang Out”- A.D.O.R.
Well, I haven’t written much on here in a while. It’s gotten about as many updates as a MySpace page. I considered this blog dead to me, and I really had no intention of writing on it again. Oh, now there’s been stuff to write about, there’s been plenty, but I didn’t write it here. It was confined to personal letters, notebook pages, and the back of my mind. I’m blowing it, but I’m that kind of guy who can get away with blowing it for longer than most. To be honest, I didn’t think I could write any more. I truly believed I had no longer had the ability, the ideas, or the drive. Why write?
It’s a good question. This first little chapter is going to be about asking ourselves questions.
Yet here I am, writing on the blog again- pouring my soul into paper cups for you all to sip while you wait for your Amazon order to go through or your porno to buffer. I appreciate your time- I really do. Below is the preface to a series I’m starting called “Disposable Hero.” I feel it describes me and a lot of other people like me very accurately. It’s about life. It’s about my life more specifically, but I hope you find it’s really about your life too. There will be updates on this series along with new posts and new fiction pieces as well.
So here it is, the first installment of Drew St.Claire’s “Disposable Hero.”
I walk into an elevator. There’s a man a handsome, middle-aged man in a suit. The doors stay open longer than normal and the man smiles. This whole scenario reminds me of when you get to the front of the line on the Tower of Terror- a little bell hop smiling as he helps you on. I step inside and the doors close.
“So what do you do?” the man in the suit asks me.
He looks like my dad. All middle-aged men in suits look like my dad. Everyone says how much I look like my dad. I am a middle-aged man in a suit.
“Sir?” he asks again.
I pause for a bit. “Honestly…I don’t know.” I say it like I just learned English earlier that day.
“Excuse me?” he asks, bewildered.
The doors open and I jump out like the elevator is going to plummet behind me. I imagine looking at the security tape later and finding out there was no one on the elevator.
I missed a key opportunity to give what’s called your “elevator speech.” If you were on an elevator with someone for about thirty seconds and had to introduce yourself and what you’re all about, this is what you’d say. It’s basically an obituary you write for yourself. Whenever I can’t think of what to say for my elevator speech, I imagine a man in a ski mask holding a gun to my head yelling to me, “Why shouldn’t I fucking kill you right this minute?” It’s a perfect writing exercise. Lately, I can’t help but feel that ski mask dude is following me around asking that same thing. When I wake up, he’s sitting across the bed from me. He’s sitting behind me as I eat my hipster granola cereal, he’s sitting next to me on the bus, he’s pissing next to me at the urinal. He’s tucking me in at night and reading me stories from a big pop-up book about the ways he could off me. He’s always asking that question too:
“Why shouldn’t I fucking kill you?”
He’s the best life coach one could ask for.
Needless to say, it’s hard to keep your cool when you feel like you always have a .45 pointed at the back of your head- but I’m trying. We’re all trying. Each of us filling out applications, sitting at desks, blowing paychecks. Hell, maybe some of us don’t even have that to preoccupy us. But all the while, that guy is following us around asking us why he shouldn’t kill us, like he’s some kind of fucked up guardian angel. He’s our malevolent spirit animal- and the funny thing is, he has a point and we should listen to him. So, just to reiterate:
“Why shouldn’t I fucking kill you?”
I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, but I still can’t think of an answer. I’m living on borrowed time, like the other seven billion of us. I want to do so much- to learn, to create, to help, to love…to live.
“I want to live!” I yell back at the ski mask guy. He smiles, his mask smiles. He pulls the trigger. It wasn’t loaded. Then he’s gone, just like the man in the suit on the elevator.
So, remind me again:
“Why shouldn’t I fucking kill you?”
At the request of one Vallyn Murphy, the blog is coming back like the living dead. The writing may have stopped, but I haven’t. Check back soon for this site’s new lease on cyber-life.
It’s about time for my phone to be upgraded. That may not seem like much, but when you consider it, this is a pretty sizable milestone all things considered. I remember getting this phone, an iPhone 3GS, at the very end of junior year for my 21st birthday. Since I’ve gotten it, it’s become an extension of me- despite the fact I never thought I’d use it. Well, I did use it- and I used it a fair amount. It’s captured a lot of moments- graduation, girls, bonfires out in the country, lonely walks in downtown, everything. Our phones have become our little worry stones- Generation Y’s baby blankets. So, as I thumbed through these pictures, I decided to blog one of them every few days until my new phone comes in. So here’s the first installment of “From the Vault.”
Here’s the third ever photo I took on my iPhone. I figured it’s a good one to start with. It’s one of those pictures you’re really proud of simply because you captured a rare moment, something that you probably won’t see again. It’s not often you see a fucking storm trooper walking around downtown after all.
To understand this photo, you have to go back to the night before.
It was my 21st birthday- the day the government deems you mature enough to drink alcohol and the day you prove to them by your actions that you really aren’t. I came back to Raleigh to get my first legal drink at the Raleigh Times with some friends- something I said I’d do since I first got to State. I don’t remember much about getting to the Times (not because I was drunk, but because I’m a space cadet and can barely remember someone’s name), but I recollect getting a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy from the liquor store because I thought brandy was classy. Somehow we end up at the bar- a renovated newspaper building that has since become the hipster mecca of the Southeast. I look at the menu and it becomes obvious what my first legal beer is going to be- Lucifer. I don’t care what it tastes like or who makes it or what sort of food you pair it with- this beer is called Lucifer and I have to drink it just because of that.
It’s strange the clarity you gain from a few pints- despite the fact that your physical coordination sags, often times your mind focuses a bit more on reality, as hazy as it may become. This is prime time for talks about politics, religion, and how people really feel about each other. A fifth of whiskey absolves sins and affirms lovers like few things in this world do. It’s strange that these discussions have to come under the influence of the booze or the bong (I’m guilty of both from time to time), but perhaps that’s the only time we feel safe to truly express ourselves- when we feel everyone else is off guard. We’re so selfish with our true emotions.
Acquaintances drink coffee. Friends drink beer.
Anyways, back to the insight you get from putting on the beer goggles. I noticed things differently after these first few beers. This was my first time getting drunk after all, despite my assertion that I was seasoned from glasses of dinner wine and an Irish heritage. I noticed lots of things I didn’t like. I noticed the way one of my then friends was flirting with my then girlfriend and realized that this was going to be the last birthday we’d celebrate together. I noticed half of the people around me I didn’t even really like all that much. I noticed that my mustache looked a little creepy after all. I noticed that more drinks made me forget all those things.
Somehow I end up in a parking lot later that night to be driven home. I spot a parking barricade and, in my state, know that I simply must vault over it. I remember hearing my friend Kieran’s voice telling me not to do it, but when you’re hammered, voices of reason sound like car alarms- you hear them in the distance, but you never check to see if it actually is meant for you. I fall like a sack of bricks onto my hand. I don’t feel a thing though and I could care less about the pain this is going to bring me later in the morning. Caring about fair weather friends, a cheating girlfriend, and sprained wrists stops somewhere around seven beers for me.
I spend the night in my friend Mel’s room because my then girlfriend doesn’t want to sleep with me- something “three beers Drew” would find odd but “seven beers Drew” just sees as more room to sprawl out on the bed. This is by far one of the most hellish nights I’ve had. Mel has this sort of hippie chic to her room, so there’s a million Indian and Arab inspired pillows and rugs around the room and all of them itch. The AC is out too- because why the fuck not, you know? I take off everything but my boxers to stay cool (I figured having my balls on Mel’s bedspread would just make it awkward), but that doesn’t help. I lay staring at the ceiling fan spin, in a hot itchy room and I realize Dante’s Inferno has been updated to fit modern life.
I get no sleep and am woken up by the girls wanting to get donuts and coffee. I stomach a few cream-filled’s and sip a white chocolate mocha as we drive back to the house. Then I spot it. I can’t believe my eyes. Has sleep deprivation and alcohol fucked with my senses enough to cause me to hallucinate? No. For one of the few times in life, it isn’t too good to be true- there’s a fucking storm trooper standing on the corner of Fayetteville Street across from a souvlaki stand. This is the cosmos’s way of telling me it has a sense of humor. I found a glitch in the matrix.
And there you have it.
Two years later I’m writing about this photo. Two years later that storm trooper has unwittingly made themself a book end in one of the most pivotal periods of my life. Two years later I’m smiling more at this photo than when I took it.
Check back often for new installments in “From the Vault.”