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Eating Machine by Mark Vannier

Eating Machine by Mark Vannier

Fiction, Vol. 5.3, Sept. 2011

An early-March ice storm had rendered the back stairwell of my apartment building treacherous for walking, so when I took out the garbage it should have been no surprise that I would lose my footing. Groggy as I was, overcast and unrevealing as that early hour was, there really should’ve been no surprise at all that my tennis-shoed right foot would catch no resistance, and my entire body would drop and bang down the steps, and my garbage tear open against the railing, and I and my waste would wind up littered at the bottom of the stairs. And in spite of the circumstances I was surprised, as generally is the case when the body is jerked so suddenly. A moment passed, my breath held, a pregnant silence stalled time. Then I raised my head, exhaled, and let loose a timid grunt. Tiny pockets of hot pain bloomed throughout my body, particularly near my joints. Junk mail and food waste and soiled wrappers surrounded me like a ragged blanket. My downstairs neighbor’s basset hound barked. After a minute of corporeal inventory, during which I concluded I had avoided any immediately life-altering injuries, I collected myself and stood with the help of the bottom three stairs and the handrail. I felt something tickling in my ear canal. Coffee grounds. I cleaned up my mess then trudged back upstairs to lie in bed and ache for a while. When I woke, it was dusk and I began crying, softly and inaudibly, for a solid twenty minutes. Then I realized I was incredibly hungry and ordered some pad thai and spring rolls from Oscar’s. I fell asleep again before the food arrived and slept through the buzzer and two missed calls, and woke for the third time that day just before midnight. This was Monday.

Tuesday morning when I got into work, a cartoon of a cat precipitously balanced on a tenuous bridge of powerlines was taped to my monitor. My coworkers had been going out of their way recently to brighten my mood with tchotchkes and pastries surreptitiously left in my tiny cubicle and forwarded inspirational pictures and chain e-mails with extra large and colorful fonts clogging my inbox. This was happening because my wife, who seemed to love me abruptly, had left me for another man, by whom she’d gotten pregnant—something I could not manage to do—and I came to fully realize she was gone while I was at work one morning making coffee in the office kitchen. You can’t continue to be a happily bland nobody among your coworkers when you are splayed out on a table moaning like a sea thing taken from the water. So this is what led to the cartoon cat and the rest. At first I secretly took comfort in the attention, but after about two weeks, enough was enough. I tossed the cartoon in a desk drawer full of non-work-related crap and began my day editing sales flyers. We did work for print ads and websites. I did mostly grocery stores, occasionally sporting goods chains. I’d started out in department stores and was moved to the more detailed and regularly changing grocery stores after about nine months. I’d been working this job about four years by then.

“Oh my God, Danny, you’re here today.”

“Hi, Sarah.” Sarah was in her mid-forties and had no children of her own but was apparently compelled to mother the people she worked with.

“Is everything O K?” The way she spaced the O from the K reeked of condescension.

“Everything’s great, thanks for asking.” I began downloading that week’s meat specials at Dominick’s to busy myself.

“It’s just that you weren’t in yesterday, and I brought you some of my spinach lasagna. I made it over the weekend, enough for the whole week; it’s easier that way. Anywho, it’s in the fridge in a blue Tupperware bowl.”

“Thank you, that sounds great.”

“I wrapped it in masking tape, you know, to make sure nobody opened it. I marked it Danny so everyone knows it’s for you. Why weren’t you in yesterday? Do you need to talk?”

“I fell down some steps. I’m fine, though, thanks.”

“Oh, my God. Well, I’m glad you’re back. Do you like eggplant?”

“I can’t remember having it, but I don’t think I like it.”

“I bet you just love it. Well you let me know if you need anything, O K?”

Instead of eating Sarah’s lasagna, I lied and said I was meeting a friend out for lunch, then walked to the lake, secretly hoping I’d stumble upon some apocryphal sign on the waterfront that would confirm my constant sense of impending doom—a homeless man proselytizing me with unusual coherence; my doppelganger handing out flyers for an event that would set the rest of my life in motion; a three-eyed Asian carp leaping from the choppy Lake Michigan water and landing in my outstretched hands. But there was nothing to be found except a stale gray silence and the indifferent cold. And this was pretty much how my days at work had been going.

Have you ever seen a magic show and let yourself get lost in a trick? And afterwards—the satisfying little wonder tickling your brain, childishly asking, how did he do that? That’s what I felt like after Karen left. No matter how much I thought about it, how much I wondered how she was able to do it, I knew that it was best I didn’t know. The trick was bad enough. Knowing how simple and real it was would have just ruined any other tricks for me forever.

*

Tuesday night, my friend Sam coerced me to dinner at The Rail for all-you-can-eat spaghetti night. Sam was rotund but well-dressed and groomed with a hipster five-o’clock shadow ever present on his face and head. He always sought out the best deals and got off on sharing his finds with others, like a fat squirrel showing off a hidden trove of nuts. I realized after we’d ordered that I had not eaten since Sunday night.

“It’s medium-OK, but you get it for the garlic bread. Best garlic bread in the city. What’s with your eyes?”

“What do you mean?”

“They look jaundiced. Do you have jaundice? What’s going on? Tell me what’s been happening. Where’d you get jaundiced eyes?”

The waitress brought our food and Sam grabbed her arm as she was leaving.

“Could we get extra garlic bread now before we get to the next round of spaghetts? Thanks.”

I looked at the plate of spaghetti that had just been set before me, then focused my eyes on the TV at the other end of the restaurant showing a college basketball game, then back to my plate to gauge my vision.

“I fell down my back stairs. Maybe that did something.”

“You fell down the stairs? Are you a toddler? You probably just need more carotene or iron. Eat up, get your money’s worth.”

I looked around the room some more, then took a bite.

“I can see fine.”

“Listen, I went to the zoo this weekend with Mary, and the pond when you first walk in past the botanical gardens? Two swans fucking, swear to God. Have you ever seen swans fucking? Intense.”

Sam shoveled a forkful of food into his mouth. “Oh, what the shit?”

He opened up and let the mess of food drop from his fat mouth back to his plate. Slick and red and fleshy from the noodles; it looked like an awful stillborn birth.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? This is completely cold and disgusting like it’s been sitting around all day. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know. Mine seems fine.”

Sam reached over with his fork and tasted my spaghetti. He immediately rejected it.

“No, no, yours is the same. You can’t tell?”

I took another bite. I left it still on my tongue a few moments, then moved it around, chewed it, swallowed. Nothing. I couldn’t taste anything. Not just temperature, but I had no taste whatsoever. I felt like when I sleep on my arm and wake up totally numb; once I work it a little, get the blood flowing again, and the feeling comes right back. But for some reason, the feeling wasn’t coming back. I took another bite of spaghetti, just a tiny one, then another much larger one, added salt and pepper. I rinsed my mouth with water, chomped through two pieces of garlic bread, a massive delivery of the cold spaghetti. Nothing.

“Here, eat these.” Sam handed me a small fistful of Starburst candies. They were like little hunks of tasteless wax.

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“This is wacked.” Sam rubbed his shaved head in disbelief. “Nursemaid, we need a shot of your cheapest, most vile grain alcohol.” When the shot came, he pushed it to me.

“I can’t take a shot, Sam.”

“It’s an experiment. Sip it, then spit it out if it’s too harsh.”

I brought the tiny glass to my lips and siphoned a tentative sip, waiting for some foul burn, but it didn’t come. I hadn’t had a drink in almost three years, since just after I got engaged. I poured the whole shot into my mouth and swished it around, searching for anything. No different from my water.

“This is amazing,” Sam said. He chewed stupidly through half a basket of garlic bread. “I mean, this is the sort of thing you can cash in on. Jesus. I didn’t think it was possible. First the swans and now this mess. Hey, we’re gonna need two more shots here. Bless you, nurse.”

This was how I discovered my talent.

*

That night I took some aspirin, followed by a shot of night-time cold medicine to help me sleep. But instead of sleeping, I lay restless in my bed cycling through a mélange of thoughts. How does this happen? What if this is a symptom of a more dire issue? What if I have brain damage? Should I get a pet? How do people decide on names? The woman I love is going to have a child with another man. Is this something I can die from, and if so, do I want to be buried or cremated? Why do you advertise porterhouse on sale when it’s twenty cents more expensive than it was two weeks ago? It’s about time I move out west and start over, find a job working my body, maybe planting trees for the Park Service, begin my life anew.

I got out of bed and went to the bathroom, examined my face in the mirror. My eyes did look a bit sallow. My body ached from my tumble down the stairs. I drew a bath, which I never did, and sat naked in the quiet chamber of the bathroom until dawn began graying the window with light, and I curled onto my couch and fell in stages into sleep.

Wednesday I missed work again and transformed my cluttered kitchen into a taste-testing lab. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, any combination, hyper-aware for any hint of recognition. Some of the food stuff I spit out into my trash can like I was engaged in an absurdist wine tasting; some I swallowed to verify I wasn’t missing any sort of flavor latency. A can of tuna, strawberry ice cream, a spoonful of horseradish, peanut butter, plain butter, potato chips, mustard, a pickle spear, a shot of pickle brine. I even balled up a strip of aluminum foil and chewed it flat with my fillinged molars. Not even that elicited a response. I knew something was in there, I could feel it moving around inside, but it was like an itch that I thoughtlessly scratched, chewing, swallowing, the oral mechanics of eating just a reaction to having the itch of food on my tongue. My kitchen, lately a barren landscape of unread magazines and junk mail, was now rife with culinary chatter like the aftermath of an impromptu lunatic dinner party.

I left the mess and went on a long walk to cleanse my palette. In front of a Cold Stone Creamery were two women corralling a group of small children, who attempted to walk and eat ice cream cones simultaneously. It was far too cold to be eating ice cream, and I wanted to say something to the mothers. But then one of the kids, this boy, maybe four or five years old, pointed his cone at me and obliterated me with a series of laser gun sounds. I smiled at the kid, clutched my chest, and said, “You got me,” in as playful a tone as I could. I smiled over to the mothers, who returned my look with disapproving frowns before shuffling past me. I went home and lay on my couch until near dawn before falling asleep.

Thursday afternoon I returned home from work to find Sam in my apartment. He let himself in through my back door with the broken lock I kept putting off getting fixed.

“You wouldn’t believe the responses I got,” Sam said. He was pacing my living room and fingering through his iPhone while I lay on my couch ignoring a travel show from my DVR queue, a leftover from Karen. Sam had posted a Craigslist ad to entice proposition gamblers into eating bets. The post referred to me as his “client.” He had also printed some cheap business cards that read “Daniel Peyton: Extreme Eating Entertainment.” He used my apartment for the company business address. He’d also created an e-mail address and a Facebook account to cultivate a fan base.

“I’m not a circus act, Sam.”

“You say it like it’s a bad thing. You have this gift and you need to take advantage of it before it disappears. Come on, we’ve already been posted on the website of Handle Bar for tonight.” Sam sat me upright and pushed my feet into my shoes like a mother would her child.

“Somebody advertised me on their website?”

“Not just somebody, a business. The guy I talked to said he’d give us a hundred bucks as long as we’re not full of shit, but he couldn’t let customers gamble. Come on, get up. What else were you going to do tonight other than mope here alone? What you need is to get out there and live, man. So let’s go see what these assholes want you to put in your mouth.”

Handle Bar was a pseudo-biker bar with a punk rock vibe. It was dank and dirty and crowded with tattooed twenty-somethings sporting black-rimmed glasses and rough denim-clad fifty-somethings. Sam hustled us down the narrow bar to a short, stout man with a receding hairline that flowed into a long wispy ponytail in back. He sat behind the bar playing with a deck of cards.

“You Dolan?” Sam asked, hand outreached.

“Who are you, the motherfucking CIA?” Dolan continued to flip through his cards.

“I’m Sam. We talked this afternoon. About the Craigslist ad?”

“Yeah, right. This the guy who eats shit? Looks kinda sickly to me.” Dolan ogled me the way a madman passerby might take in the scene of a grisly car wreck. I could almost feel him laughing internally at me and my sickliness.

“I’m not sick, I just look like this. And I don’t eat actual shit if that’s what you had in mind.” Dolan and Sam both were assessing me now as if they were considering my purchase, like a heifer on display for cattlemen.

“I’ll eat anything,” I said. “I mean any fucking thing.” I puffed out my chest and slapped my face for effect, but that backfired when I grimaced in pain. Nevertheless, I held my bravado stance and we three stood silent. I felt like I was at the precipice of an Old West gun fight.

“All right, then,” Dolan said finally. “Let’s get your crazy ass set up.”

We funneled from the bar through a brief hallway that opened up to another room with soft lighting and a shuffleboard table, scarred and crosshatched like a brutalized geology. Dolan quickly set it up as a dining table. People began to fill the back room, many of them checking in with sacks and small containers for Dolan to add to the smorgasbord. Sam rubbed my neck and shoulders like a boxing trainer. He was fast-talking into my ear, offering meaningless advice like, “find your zen,” and, “eat it and defeat it.” The room was taking on a frenetic carnival atmosphere, and I was questioning how exactly this was where my life had ended up.

Dolan acted as a master of ceremonies. He introduced me, controlled the crowd like a conductor over his orchestra, and began ostentatiously feeding me like some zoo animal. I ate a raw onion like a piece of fruit, some blood sausage, a whole clove of garlic. Several bugs, some fried worms, soured milk, unsavory condiment concoctions. More novel treats like lit matches and an entire burnt orange crayon (non-toxic, I was assured). None of it affected me. I simply didn’t look at what I was putting in my mouth, and other than differences in relative size and general sense of texture, it was all the same. The crowd would grow silent before each morsel passed my lips, gasped in both glee and horror as I played with it in my mouth, then cheered more and more wildly each time I swallowed. I got into such a zone that the sound of the crowd became a muffled, distant stranger. The people, the room, the shuffleboard table, everything began to merge together, then expand, out of focus and blurring together, blinking like spots after a blow to the head. I felt as if I could take everything in all at once, but was incapable of processing any meaning. I was an automaton. I was an eating machine.

After the show, the drunken crowd lauded me as a hero. More than a few jokingly offered me antacids. A large woman with dyed black hair and a studded dog collar around her neck gave me her phone number and e-mail address. Dolan handed Sam five twenty-dollar bills and made us promise we’d come back again. Sam and I stopped at a diner on the way home. Sam had a full pancake breakfast, and I sipped on coffee just to give my hands something to do. He paid for his meal and my coffee, then before we split up in front of the diner to go home and to bed, he handed me sixty bucks. This is how I began spending my nights.

*

My attendance at work became more and more erratic. When I was there, I spent much of my time rearranging my cubicle. I decorated the cheap fabric walls by tacking up the printed e-mails and cartoons my coworkers had given me. I also spent a lot of time cleaning public areas. I took sanitary wipes and cleaned the men’s bathroom, completely removing questionable stains and pubic hairs from sight. Thanks to me, the kitchen was redolent of pine and lemon, and the refrigerator was organization exemplified. One afternoon, after removing items that had lingered in the fridge beyond their acceptable shelf life, I lined up all the forgotten and unwanted food to put on a practice eating display. A mousy woman from HR walked in on me and said, “Excuse me, are you stealing people’s food?”

“All of this stuff has been sitting in the fridge way too long. These people are blatantly ignoring the kitchen etiquette rules that clearly state,” and I pointed to a posted landscape Word document taped to a cabinet housing Styrofoam cups and generic coffee, “please remove all personal items from refrigerator by Friday of each week to help us maintain a clean environment. When we all share, we must ALL do our part.” I grabbed a plastic cup with withered celery and carrot sticks that had turned a grayish brown and looked vaguely like rubber.

“Let’s put this stuff back and relax, OK?” She said. “I’ll have Carol send out a memo reminding people to clean their food from the fridge.”

I took a handful of the forgotten veggie snacks and said, “I’m just cleaning up the mess others have thoughtlessly left behind,” then held the veggie sticks in my teeth like a cartoonish mouthful of cigarettes.

After a moment of fear or disgust, I couldn’t really tell, the HR woman stepped to the counter, grabbed a Tupperware bowl of some sort of rice dish gone coagulated and waxy with age, and, shaking it in front of my face, said to me, “You know, it’s not your responsibility to clean up after others.”

I took the partially chewed veggies from my mouth and said, “It’s not my responsibility. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do something about it. I’ve got a talent, you know.” Her hand swiftly lunged at mine, which jarred me. After a brief struggle, I gave up and she wrangled the celery and carrot sticks from my hand and tossed them into the garbage. I was on the verge of falling into her small arms weeping. She reached up and squeezed my arm. Before she could say anything, I asked her, “Do I look like someone who could get you pregnant?” I was fired by the end of the week.

*

Days became terribly empty and lonesome. I rearranged my apartment again and again, painted each room a different color, organized and reorganized closets. I moved everything out of my bedroom piecemeal, and after a few weeks it was all crowded into my living room. I usually slept on my couch from dawn through mid-afternoon with the TV on. Spring finally came, the cold broke, and I began to see myself changing. My skin looked pastier, my eyes were sunken, and when people talked their voices would muffle off and on like they were talking underwater. And in spite of my lack of taste, I began to get strong, bizarre cravings. One afternoon while looking at an album of wedding photos, I had the urgent need to suck on a nine-volt battery. What I really needed was to cut the cord from my former life and embrace my new identity before I went completely crazy. So that’s what I tried to do.

Nights grew longer and I grew fatter as I fell into my new lifestyle as a freakshow entertainer. I did numerous bars, occasional house parties, even a couple gigs with stand-ups. Sometimes Sam accompanied me, but more and more often I booked events without him. I was a vaudevillian striking a deep chord of nostalgia most people didn’t know they coveted in a culture that had turned nostalgia into a shallow, pre-packaged ironic T-shirt. I was coming to terms with being the guy who eats things; in fact, I reveled in my microscopic celebrity. I even started picking up women after my performances. A full-on rock star persona in miniature had reshaped my identity. Gone were my nights of wallowing in self-pity. I had been given a chance to start over, to relive my youth just as it seemed youth had faded from my grasp. I didn’t think about my wife and the old future that no longer belonged to me. I didn’t think about “shooting blanks” as a doctor said, followed by immediate and awkward regret. I didn’t think about losing my job. I didn’t think about going off somewhere remote and trying to create a new identity. I simply consumed everything laid before me and focused—not on all the joy I was missing by not being able to taste anything—but rather on the fact that I’d quite literally never again have to worry about anything leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth.

One morning—an unseasonably cold Friday just after dawn—as I was walking home after a night of extreme eating and anonymous partying with some suspect characters at the loft apartment of a woman who claimed to be a children’s book author and illustrator, I came upon a homeless man crushed by the heavy pressing machinery of a garbage truck. I heard the commotion from an alley behind a row of restaurants and bars, and when the sidewalk crossed the alley I stood not ten yards from the gaping maw of the garbage truck. Two burly city workers, one younger and one middle-aged, frantically burrowed through the flattened garbage, tossing into the alley chunks of refuse enmeshed like pressboard while a third man hung stupidly from the open driver side door of the cab. After a few chaotic moments, the older city worker disappeared into the garbage while the younger muttered over and over, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…” The older guy came up with the crumpled body of a man in his arms.

“Hop out, help get him out,” he barked to the younger man who followed orders. They cautiously hoisted the body from the truck and laid it down on the dirty asphalt. He wheezed pathetically, blood and spit bubbling from his mouth and sluicing down his sunken cheek. He looked familiar to the point that I felt a rush of anxiety, and then I realized why: he was wearing a flannel shirt that was as near as I could see exactly the same as the one I was wearing underneath my jacket. The older guy looked up at me and shouted, “Hey, buddy, call somebody, quick.”

I called 911 and they dispatched an ambulance that appeared within minutes. The city workers removed their thick, filthy gloves, surveying the dying man on the ground, who was suddenly flanked by a duo of perfunctory EMTs. The older city worker offered me a cigarette, and I accepted, even though I never smoked. I’d fallen fully into the habit of automatically accepting anything that went in my mouth. The man gave me a puzzled glance and said, “I know you, don’t I?”

“I don’t think so.”

“No, you’re that guy that eats shit, aren’t you?”

I couldn’t believe that this was the first time I’d ever been recognized. I was oddly flattered and dismayed to have my first encounter like this happen under such moribund circumstances.

“Yeah, that’s me. I’m the guy who eats shit. Not actual shit, but you know.” I took a few unnatural drags from the cigarette. I stood there awkwardly while the EMTs bound the homeless man’s body to a gurney.

“So what do you do in real life?” The man asked me. I thought for a moment, and a burst of embarrassment flooded me. I felt my pasty complexion grow red.

“Well, that is what I do now. That’s my job.”

“You mean you can live off that? Shit. So how you do it, man? You got some sort of trick you do, fake throat or something? Just watching you that one time made me gag.”

“I really don’t know how it works to be honest. Do you think that guy, I mean, is he going to die?”

“I couldn’t believe he was still breathing, to be honest. It’s not the first time. Probably won’t be the last.” Then he dropped his butt to the ground, still smoking as he left me to console his younger partner.

The EMTs loaded the man into the ambulance. A police car showed up, and a cop called the garbage guys for questioning. I slinked away.

At home I curled up on the couch to sleep, but couldn’t. By now I had been going out every night until dawn, even if there was no extreme eating for me to exploit myself in front of strangers. I’d wander around from bar to bar, and when the bars closed, to 24-hour diners where I’d tell the waitresses to surprise me, and I’d sit until dawn sipping coffee that had undoubtedly gone cold, though, of course, I had no problem with that. I lay there restless on my couch until almost noon. How many garbage trucks does it take to haul away all the garbage in all the alleys, anyway? It’s such an endless task. There must be similar trucks for hauling away unclaimed bodies from hospitals to giant incinerators or mass graveyards for guys like my shirt twin, I figured. I wondered what might happen when a coroner opened me up for an autopsy if I were to pass suddenly and without explanation. Would it look like an overused garbage disposal, or maybe a tiny fecund garden, all swampy and fertile like something ancient, primal?

I opened my windows to circulate the air in my cluttered apartment. A cadre of the city’s most vocal songbirds raucously gathered in the leafing branches of an oak in front of my building. Finally I grabbed some blankets neatly folded in the hall closet and went into my empty bedroom. I made a little nest in one corner, where the bed used to be, and closed my eyes. But my mind wasn’t allowing me to sleep here, either, as I jumped from daydream to daydream, unable—or unwilling—to maintain a single train of thought. To be honest, it wasn’t much different from when I had my job, except there, I at least had my grocery ads to keep me focused on a task. But I also didn’t feel so empty and alone. I got out of my nest and decided to clean my kitchen. Jars that should be in the refrigerator sat lidless and scattered on the countertops; bread in an open breadbag on the stove had turned gray-green with mold. Tiny flies flitted among the debris, feasting. I filled two garbage bags, then a third and fourth emptied out the fridge. I scrubbed the inside of the bare fridge and then other surfaces of the kitchen, mopped the floor—I even cleaned inside the oven. When I finished the sun was setting. I took the garbage bags out to the dumpster in the alley, then went off to meet Sam at a house party gig.

The moon was full and white and shone brilliantly by the time I arrived at the party. It was in a swank condo just a short walk from the lake. Sam met me out front and tried to talk me out of going in. “Let’s just go out somewhere me and you, my treat. Brownstone has two dollar burgers tonight. Their burgers are tight, like pussy-tight.”

“Do you know how ridiculous you sound when you say things like that? And what would I care anyway if their burgers are tight?” I said. “This was all your idea to begin with.”

“I just wanted to give you something to do, man. I just wanted to get your mind off things. I think you’re getting out of hand though, man. You look like shit.”

“Thanks a lot. Let’s just do this.”

“Look, Danny, you don’t want to go in there, OK.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t.” Sam paused for a moment, then said, “Because Karen’s in there, and she’s not alone. And she’s way bigger than even you’ve gotten, bro. So let’s just bolt.”

A small twinge of nausea reverberated in my belly. I wanted to say that I didn’t care, I want to go in this party and eat every last thing they’ve got, but my voice stalled, unresponsive. The nausea spread through my body, down my arms and down my legs like a bad case of nerves. The only place that might have been worse was back inside my empty apartment. And so I went inside.

Sam and I were buzzed in and ascended the polished hardwood stairs to the third-floor party condo. An overly tanned man in a pretentious fedora ushered us inside. Saxophone-heavy adult contemporary jazz underscored a cacophony of conversation. I scanned the party for Karen, but didn’t see her. A handful of men and women dressed as mimes balanced goblets of red and white wine and hors d’oeuvres on silver trays. A horse-toothed woman spoke in an inordinately loud screech of a voice to a captive circle while stroking the hairless body of a handheld dog. I pushed down a hallway into the kitchen. There on a stool at a marble topped island sat Karen laughing. A tall man in a powder-blue sweater vest stood slightly behind her to one side, his hand resting on her shoulder.

Sam put an arm around my neck. “Let’s just get out of here, man. They’ve got fucking mimes catering this thing. Why would anyone want to be around people like this?” I took a breath, extricated myself from Sam’s hold on me, and walked directly over to Karen’s new lover.

“Excuse me,” I said. Karen looked at me and became flushed. It looked like her, but she seemed to me a total stranger with her fattened stomach.

“What are you…?” She trailed off her words and stared blankly, first at me, then to her new man, then back to me finally. “What are you doing here?”

“If you’re going to take something from me,” I said, ignoring Karen, “then you’re going to do it right.”

“Am I supposed to know you or something?” He said. A rush of pain burned in my chest before emanating down to my balled fist, and I swung. A sucker punch to the gut doubled him over. Someone near us screamed. People scattered away from me as if from something had fallen from above and shattered. I felt more alive than I could remember feeling.

“Yes,” I said, “you are supposed to know me.” I grabbed hold of his powder-blue sweater vest. “I’m the guy who eats shit.” I reared my fist again, but someone grabbed my arm. I turned to wrestle my arm from the grip of a man who looked like he could be a professional wrestler. Sam came up behind the guy and pulled him off me. I swung around and felt an explosion of pain crush my jaw. I tumbled backwards and fell to the floor. A crowd loomed over the scene. Sam was being wrestled out of the kitchen by the wrestler-looking guy. A smooth saxophone riff bounced through the room. A mime picked up spanakopita from the floor. Karen’s new man kicked my side repeatedly. She stood behind him screaming, a look of horror and pain on her face. Intermittently through sobs she repeated, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Two other men joined her man and they dragged me out of the kitchen, put me up on my feet, and walked me out of the condo like cops would an out of control prisoner.

“I don’t want to ever see you again, asshole,” he said. I went to push my way back inside and the wrestler guy grabbed me like a ragdoll and pushed me down the stairs. I covered my head with my arms and absorbed the fall with my body. Then the wrestler came down and dragged me down the rest of the stairs and tossed me out of the building like an overzealous strip club bouncer. I lay on the concrete and stared up at the night sky. My entire body seemed to be in shock, and I was numb. Sam rushed to me, put a hand to my chest.

“Damn it, Danny, I told you not to go in. Are you OK?”

I was not yet really feeling the pain but rather riding high on the adrenaline and endorphins pumping through me. I went to speak, but was impeded by a brief coughing fit. Something warm filled me then, a comforting prick of recognition like a fleeting memory flooding my mind from out of nowhere. I reached up to my mouth and feebly spit into my hand. Then I wiped my hand on the ground and coughed again, this time more of a laugh at the fact that I had a mouth full of blood. I could taste it.

Inventory by Jenn Blair

Mineola, or, The Spirit of the War-Path: A Dramatic Eclogue by Douglas Thornton

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