Even now I can't justify leaving, or even staying for that matter.
I woke up in pain, my lip sore and my eye pounding even after sleeping with an ice pack against it. I don't know if it even helped. I'm not a doctor.
I'm not really anything. Maybe lost. A forgotten man in a mirror, blue hair shining in the light from the window, white shirt stained with spots of blood, eyes staring out from under eyebrows. I don't know me. No one does.
I want to break everything in this room.
When I get to work, Martha is carrying around a stack of applications like a holy relic, holding the pages to her chest and smiling when she sees me. In my head, I'm curious and horrified. On the outside, I am a brick wall.
Then she sees my eye, and her smile kind of droops, but doesn't go away. Her mouth opens when I get close enough to hear her over the drive through orders and the fryers going off, and she says, “Did you run into a door?”
This has to be the stupidest question on earth. This woman needs a prize.
“A few times,” I tell her, and she nods.
“It happens,” she says, not connecting the sarcasm dots.
Or maybe she is. Maybe she knows. I look at her, right in her eyes, and I swear she shrinks into the fry dump, and her smile goes away completely.
Her mouth opens again, and she gestures with the applications in her hand and says, “I got some people coming in for interviews after lunch. Did it while you weren't in.”
And she looks at me, her one eye half-closed, I guess expecting me to ask why, but all I say is, “I'll do the interviews if you do the manager book.”
She smiles again, and hands me the stack of papers, relieved.
I've got the drink bar almost clean when I see Warren come in out of the corner of my eye.
Isn't it funny that no matter how painfully awkward the situation gets, people will follow routine?
I turn to look directly at him, the bleach-smelling, soda-stained towel in my hand. The dining room is empty except for us, and right now I've got visions in my head of holding him down and forcing the towel down his throat. FUCK YOU, I think to myself, and I smile at him. Kind of.
I just want to get this over with. I'm through the dividing door and behind the counter before he gets to the register.
Coming to the counter, he smiles at me with his cut lip, and we stand there, with the cash register as a mutual weapon between us. First to grab it and kill the other wins.
But nothing happens.
We just stand there like dumb pieces of shit, bruised and torn and healing.
Fuck. My head hurts.
“How's work?” he asks me, his voice shaky.
It's totally fucked up now that you're here, I want to tell him.
“It's okay I guess,” I tell him.
Why can't you understand I don't want to see you right now? I want to say. I want to grab the sides of his face and scream it until he screams too, and shoves me back into the wall behind me.
He looks down as he tries to find his wallet, as though I would charge him for food.
“Dude, why are you getting your wallet?” I ask.
He looks up, his wallet half out of his pants pocket.
I want to start a fight. I want to make him bleed.
A quick in-office look through the applications reveals a variety of handwriting. One of them looks like a preschooler wrote it. I mark it by folding the top corner because they also mention leaving 13 previous jobs for “personal reasons.”
Why do people even put that? They have to know I'm going to ask. And it's always someone saying something like “my last boss was a real asshole. Hoping to find a job where I'm appreciated.”
There's a knock on the door and then it opens and I hear Martha come in. I've got this sudden urge to close her in the door.
“First one's here, Aaron. I gave him a cup and he's in a booth,” she says.
“Which one is it?” I ask.
And she just stands there, staring at me.
“One on top, I think,” she says, pointing to the stack of papers in my hand.
I hand them to her and say, “They're not in order anymore.”
She takes them and sorts through them, then looks at two of them over and over, her face pinched. After a while, she puts one on top and hands the stack back. “That one,” she says.
I take the stack from her, and I see that I'm looking at the one I've marked.
Coming around the outside of the fryers toward the front counter, I see him already. He's got a lip piercing, and he's a teenager. And suddenly I feel like the oldest person on earth. I feel roots growing out of my legs and tearing my skin as I walk, dragging along the quarry tile floor behind me.
The interview has been going surprisingly well until now, and he's even answered the “personal reasons” question with logical excuses.
Then I say the magic words.
“I can't let you wear your piercing in the kitchen,” I tell him.
And he looks up at my blue hair and laughs like he can't believe me. My hand goes up to my hair out of reflex.
“They let you have blue hair?” He asks me.
I know where this is going. He sits back and glares, and then he looks away and laughs again, shaking his head.
Any other time, I'd be able to handle this logically, but right now, I'm struggling to keep from flipping the table over on him.
And then he looks at me and says, “What the fuck happened to your face anyway? You tell the last kid to take his piercing out too?”
I stare at him for a second, and he raises his eyebrows at me.
And I smile, and laugh a little. This interview is over. This kid is fucked.
I say to him, “Well...” I look at the application to get his name, “Jacob... it was a pleasure, definitely. I'll let you know.”
And he glares at me, and narrows his eyes. “You'll let me know. I'm sure you will,” he says coldly.
And I sigh and get up from the booth and start to walk back to the door I came out of, and back to the safety of my office.
“When did you forget how to be alive?” the kid yells after me, and it makes me stop and turn to look at him. He's gotten up from the booth, his eyes cold, his hands balled into fists at his sides.
And I imagine the floor opening to swallow him.
I look around and I realize that the whole store is looking at me: the other guests, my employees giggling behind the counter, and Martha with her eyes wide.
I give the kid the thumbs up and continue through the door, slamming it behind me.
I get a call from my regional manager demanding to know what I had said to “faggot” guy from a couple days ago, telling me that I had better be in the store tomorrow because he wants to talk to me about some things I've been screwing up lately.
I just sit there with the phone to my ear, waiting to hear his head explode.
I've had it with this place. In my mind, I imagine the fryers exploding, the broiler bursting into flames, all the windows exploding.
And all the people running, never getting away.
I can definitely relate to that.
I'm putting the last of the info into the computer when there's a knock on the door, and it opens.
“What is it now?” is the nicest thing I can think of to say, and I don't look away from the screen when I say it.
A few quiet seconds later, Martha says, “Some guy's here to see you again.”
Fuck my life. I turn to smile at her.
“It just keeps getting better, doesn't it Martha?”
She blinks at me behind her glasses and says, “I'll tell him you're busy.”
“I'm not busy,” I tell her, my chest tight and my eyes wet. “Just give him a cup and sit him down.”
Martha stares at me just long enough for me to realize she's still there, and then she says, “Do you suppose they're related?”
I'm not even going to try to understand what she's talking about. I can't concentrate at all. It was hard enough a moment ago to get the data into the computer without cruising for plane tickets and crying over my life.
And then Martha's out the door, which is still open.
I swear to god. One of these days I'm going to nail it shut.
When I come around the Fryer wall, I see Harrison. His eyes go first to my black eye, then my lips, then they get really distant.
I stop in front of the register, my stomach cold and dark and full of acid. How did I become this person?
On the counter by the register is the cup Martha put there for him.
Harrison's eyes refocus on me, and I watch his hands ball into fists at his sides, and then I close my eyes, wishing I were dead.
His voice is low and calm and flat when he asks me what happened.
It's a very serious question, and not really a question at all to me, but a confirmation of my lame bullshit status as a victim today.
I open my eyes and smile at him.
“It's a long story,” I tell him.
And I hope that stops him from asking. Lame, I know, right?
He stares at me, his face blank, but his eyes a darker blue than before. His hands are still fists, and my blood is ice water.
“I've got time for a long story,” he says to me.
And that's it. I have to tell someone.
“That's for you,” I tell him, nudging the cup.
He just stands there, then he looks down, and runs a hand back and forth over his green hair, then looks back up at me, his eyes sympathetic and full of pain.
Then, he smiles sadly and takes the cup from the counter.
The view from the roof of Burger King is incredible. I come here sometimes to get away from work and procrastinate. From here, I can see the grocery store across the vast parking lot, and in all directions houses and buildings and cars and people.
I've got some lawn chairs up here. I'm in one, and Harrison is in the other.
“I really don't know what to do with myself anymore,” I'm telling him, like some stupid emo fucked up moron, tears in my eyes.
And he's sitting in his lawn chair, looking sad for me, his cup of lemonade in one hand, the other across his lap.
“I hate him,” he says.
And I run a hand over my hair, and in my mind, it's not just blue, it's shining in the light from the sun. “I started it,” I say.
“He punched you,” Harrison says, and he adds, “in the eye,” as though for emphasis.
I sit back in my lawn chair, laughing, my eyes wet, and my hand goes from my hair to my chest and I say, “I beat him with the remote.”
And then we're both laughing.
When I get home, Warren's car is already in the driveway, and there are lights on in the basement.
Part of me wants to just drive my car into the house and fuck everything up. But then I think of insurance and rebuilding the house and all that other stupid shit.
It's amazing how my mind works sometimes.
It's full of F-bombs and violence right now.
The house is a mess. Seriously. I don't think I've ever been so completely defeated.
And the smell from the basement is so strong I think I'm getting a contact buzz up here in the kitchen. I mean for fuck sake. Really? We have to do this tonight?
He hasn't come up here at all. I don't know if he knows I'm here yet. And there are other voices downstairs that I don't recognize.
But life goes on, right? Stupid fucking god damned life goes on, and dinner has to be made. So I'm making it.
My cooking skills are admittedly limited. I have my things I'm good at and I repeat them, especially when I'm freaking out.
Deal with it.
And then comes the magic moment.
I hear the door to the basement open, and I hear two other sets of footsteps coming up the stairs, and two male voices I don't recognize.
I don't turn around because I don't want to look at any of them.
I hear them cross the room behind me, and no one reacts to my presence at all. Like I don't live here. Like I don't even exist.
We're at the table, eating like humans. The silence is overwhelming. I don't know how to talk anymore; I can only complain.
And then he says, “Spaghetti is getting old.”
And it's like an explosion. It's like being spat on, having your finger broken and watching an animal die all at once.
All I can think is FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU.
And before I can think, my chair is on its back on the ground, and I'm stalking to the counter like I could kill him. Maybe I could. But where would I hide the body?
Warren's still at the table. I can feel his eyes on my back, and the sounds of fork and plate mingling have stopped.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks me.
“Nothing,” I say. Which is a lie.
He laughs from the table, and I turn to look at him and run a hand over my hair. My stupid blue hair. Fuck fuck fuck.
He motions to the table and says, “Come on, Aaron. Let's just eat and be nice.”
“Who were those guys with you in the basement?” I ask, and it's like the question comes out of me on its own, propelled by fear and self-loathing and anger, full of bile and blood and tears.
He looks at me like I've lost my mind. Maybe I have. I don't remember when. Years ago, maybe.
“Friends,” he says, his voice quiet and irritated. He motions to the table again and says, “Now sit the fuck down, please.”
“There's nothing wrong with spaghetti, Warren,” I tell him from the counter, my voice cracking.
“I never said there was,” he says, and it makes me laugh.
I run a hand over my hair again and I look over at the sink and I want to smash every single bowl and plate and glass in the strainer against the wall.
What does anything matter anymore?
He's already in bed. He's just fine. But here I am, standing in the bathroom, wanting to die.
Anything could be a weapon.
Even looking at the toothbrush, I can imagine it sticking out of my chest, moving with my pulse.
I'm going to bed.
(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt
(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt